In August the council imposed what the union calls intermittent, fire-company "brownouts," which take 15, four-person engine companies and nine ambulances out of duty in the city each day. The rotating fire- and paramedic-crew closures can mean, for example, that a fire or medical emergency in a particular neighborhood that would normally bring out the nearest company can now dispatch one that's miles farther.
That was just the case in recent weeks: On Dec. 2 a 71-year-old from Lincoln Heights died after being hospitalized with burns. McOsker says one of two fire engines at the nearest station was browned out, and the other was on a call, prompting dispatchers to send a crew that was based outside the neighborhood, costing precious minutes.
Last month a 64-year-old Van Nuys woman hospitalized for smoke inhalation died following a similar situation: A company based at a station 300 feet away was unavailable, and dispatchers had to find a crew based further away.
"We can't say for sure that they could have been saved," McCosker, leader of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, tells LA Weekly. "But we had the nearest engine company browned out each time, so we had a delayed response, and they might have been saved if they could have gotten there sooner."
McOsker says the council can reopen those companies by doing some belt tightening and getting less-expensive contracts for department services. "We've showed them where the money is so they can do it without reaching into the general fund," he said.
UFLAC is in contract negotiations with the city and has deemed L.A.'s stance that firefighters take pay cuts a deal-breaker. The fire department is running at a $13 million deficit, and the city could take additional fire companies out of commission to save money.