At a special meeting of the City Council's Public Safety Committee last week, flanked by camera crews, Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Brian Cummings was calm and confident, but the 32-year veteran was in trouble nonetheless.
In two weeks of turmoil that had prompted the meeting, Cummings created an uproar by instituting an information blackout on routine news regarding LAFD emergency rescue calls, and more than once changed his story about why his department gave out false data that depicted L.A. firefighters' response times as being far faster than they are.
Experts say the difference between a five-minute arrival on the scene, and a six- or seven-minute response time, can result in the death or disabling of a victim. But for years, LAFD has been quietly padding its results, shifting the calls that take six minutes into the “five minutes or less” column.
Under pressure to explain, Cummings admitted that LAFD did not give the City Council true response-time numbers when the council slashed its budget last year. Cummings' team gave computer projections instead, assuring city leaders that it could absorb the budget cut because in 2008 nearly 80 percent of emergency calls were answered in five minutes or less — a rosy record. But untrue. Just 64 percent of LAFD calls were answered that fast.
Now that number has sagged to 60 percent, and a once-heralded fire department is looking like a below-average outfit.
With critics suggesting the fire department lied, Cummings, in a March 16 letter, instituted a highly unusual news blackout on emergency calls, refusing to divulge the addresses or arrival times — key components for the public to judge if LAFD was arriving in five minutes or less.
Cummings told KNX Newsradio that his short-lived blackout was required under privacy law, and told City News Service that City Attorney Carmen Trutanich advised him to do it.
But as critics harshly questioned Cummings' judgment, Kelli Sager, one of the region's leading First Amendment attorneys, said the chief's directive was plainly illegal. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa then publicly slapped Cummings, sending him — and the city's reporters — a letter halting the blackout.
Cummings was now in the middle of the biggest political crisis the fire department had faced since the 2005 Tennie Pierce dog food incident. He attributed his snafus to misunderstandings. “It's been clear that the way I have presented the data has been confusing,” Cummings told City Council members Mitch Englander, Jan Perry, Joe Buscaino, Paul Krekorian and Dennis Zine, who make up the public safety committee.
At the three-hour emergency meeting, no City Council member seemed eager to delve into what is emerging as a systemwide safety weakness in a department once held up as exemplary.
“The sky is not falling,” insisted Zine, who is running for city controller. “The fire department is going to continue to respond to calls. We're not facing any major upheaval. … There was a lot of hysteria.”
“I have no reason to believe [Cummings] was telling anything but the truth,” Englander said afterward. The false response times issued for years by LAFD are “not the scandal that's been politicized by mayoral candidates.”
The council members appeared to mostly absolve Cummings. A majority of them, after all, approved Villaraigosa's deep budget cuts to LAFD — tens of millions of dollars over the past three years, which firefighters and others say have created longer response times to fires and other life-threatening situations.
“Resources were being drained,” says Miracle Mile Residential Association president Jim O'Sullivan, who has researched the impact of budget cuts. “We need to get LAFD back to the point in which they can protect us.”
The night before the meeting, Villaraigosa made light of what others see as systemic public-safety problems, joking about it at a roast for City Council President Herb Wesson. As first reported by news blog The City Maven and widely repeated, the mayor cracked: “Is Chief Cummings here yet? We called him five minutes ago. Late again.”
But days later, a Villaraigosa aide asked the firefighters' union not to be “so public” over the response-time issue. United Firefighters of Los Angeles City President Pat McOsker says the aide asked him to “start talking nice.” Instead, McOsker publicly declared: “I am going to be public every damn day. … The bodies are piling up!”
Some firefighters say the response-time falsehoods and Cummings' news blackout are red flags that signal larger problems that could endanger the lives of citizens and firefighters.
Activist firefighters, who would only talk anonymously for fear of retaliation — such as holds put on their promotions — tell the Weekly that morale is at its lowest point in 20 years, driven, they say, by unstable and politicized leadership. Villaraigosa has placed four different chiefs at the helm — an unprecedented turnover, worse than the LAFD leadership changes of the 1970s — and “our chief is at the beck and call of the mayor,” says a veteran with more than 20 years of service.
That veteran feels Cummings has more allegiance to Villaraigosa — who keeps moving chiefs out — than to firefighters. This firefighter says he and many others believe, “If the chief doesn't make a [budget] deal, the mayor will get another chief.”
The city is in serious fiscal straits. Last year the deficit hole was $336 million; this year it is $200 million. The L.A. Daily News reported in December that Villaraigosa's benchmark mayoral achievement has been that the city has not declared bankruptcy.
Some parts of city government escape deep cuts each year — such as the City Council's and mayor's huge personal staffs. But not the fire department. Stiff cuts backed by Council members Zine, Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry — all of whom are now running for higher office — were justified in part by citing LAFD emergency-response times that looked great on paper. The argument was that such a fine department could roll with the huge cuts. But those numbers are known now to be false.
Firefighters say the cuts have created extreme workloads and dangerous staff and equipment shortages.
“I've been talking with a lot of guys, and they look like zombies,” says a second veteran fireman who has worked under five chiefs. “You're put into a position where you can't do a good job. You can't even do an adequate job. We feel we're going to lose people, and we're putting our lives on the line. We'll do it, but the guys are concerned.”
L.A. City Council members, despite having personal staffs of 15 to 22 aides each, did not grasp during the budget debates that the response-time data touted by Cummings and then-chief Millage Peaks were from computer projections.
Instead, two community activists — Mike Eveloff and Jim O'Sullivan — created a spreadsheet showing that quick response times by LAFD were cratering. Then on March 1, city controller candidate Cary Brazeman released a “citizen audit” based on their data, showing that LAFD was achieving its response-time goals only 60 percent of the time.
A few days later, former Villaraigosa aide Austin Beutner penned a widely read Huffington Post column, stating that LAFD's quick response rate had plummeted from 86 percent to 59 percent of all calls. Then the Los Angeles Times reported that LAFD had seriously misrepresented its actual response times.
Beutner, a candidate for mayor in 2013, says city politicians “ought to be courageous enough to admit their role in this, and then come up with solutions.” He is calling for a citizens' task force, similar to the Christopher Commission, which looked into the L.A. Police Department after the 1991 Rodney King beating.
Union president McOsker welcomes scrutiny. And Bob Stern, seen by some as L.A.'s reigning “good government” expert, says it may be necessary.
“If [the political establishment] punts, then someone else needs to investigate the department,” says Stern.
A sweeping, independent review of LAFD has not been attempted in recent memory. The last such crisis was set off by a much narrower departmentwide hazing problem in 2005. Then, black firefighter Tennie Pierce claimed racial harassment by “nine white” fellow firefighters at Fire Station 5 after one of them put dog food in his spaghetti during a prank. Flanked by top black leaders, Pierce went on camera claiming racism. His lawyer demanded $3.8 million from the city.
Then-Chief William Bamattre issued a strict ban on all pranks and hazing but was forced out by Villaraigosa. Pierce got rich. But L.A. Weekly discovered that Pierce's story had holes, and that Pierce himself was a hazer. The firefighter who fed him dog food was not white but a small Latino, whom Pierce had that day compared to the size of his own excrement. His “white” crew members were a picture of racial diversity. Then photos emerged showing Pierce as an extreme prankster, strapping firefighters to gurneys or spraying water up their noses. In a widely decried move, a majority of City Council members refused to review the photos and awarded Pierce $2.7 million. Villaraigosa vetoed that award and Pierce got $1.5 million.
Now, with a deeper crisis that involves risk to the public, McOsker says the L.A. Fire Commission — five political appointees of Villaraigosa's — has dropped the ball. It appeared to be unaware that LAFD was using false response times. McOsker says he'd be surprised if Fire Commission President Genethia Hudley-Hayes and her colleagues “do anything to fix the problems with the chief. We've just been getting more platitudes, not real action.”
Hudley-Hayes did not return the Weekly's calls.
During the hubbub over Cummings' news blackout, the mayor abruptly shifted respected Police Commission member Alan Skobin onto the fire commission. Skobin told the Los Angeles Daily News, “There are certainly issues at the [LAFD]. Many of them are accountability, transparency, civilian oversight” — problems that once dogged LAPD.
Stern tells the Weekly that LAFD brass “don't seem to get the idea that the fire department has to be a responsible, transparent agency — or the same as everyone else.”
And Captain Jeff Dapper, a vice president of the firefighters union, says he's fed up with the “changing reasons” given by the brass to explain its false response-time stats. “Just be truthful. Each time you say something different, you lose your credibility.”
City Controller Wendy Greuel, who is also running for mayor in 2013, had not audited the response-time stats — but is doing so now. Greuel says, “Everything is on the table about improving the department.” But as to forming an investigatory panel, she says, “I'm not going to play politics with public safety.”
Yusef Robb, chief of staff to Garcetti, another 2013 mayoral candidate, also says, “We don't want to create another bureaucracy that creates a report that sits on the shelf. We need action.”
Beutner maintains that such responses are “underwhelming. There's been a lack of leadership and a lack of understanding what has really happened.”
The firefighter who has served under five chiefs says the department is laboring under “a big disconnect,” with Cummings and his inner staff on one side, the rank and file on the other. “They don't care at all about what we can deal with. … They only take care of their own.”
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.