Bringing the Budget Crisis Home: Will Fire Safety Go Up in Flames?

LAFD Photo by Harry Garvin
LAFD Photo by Harry Garvin

I have written and spoken about the budget crisis in California and Los Angeles a good deal, but I must now admit, it has always been from a perspective of some distance. My observations have frankly been as one who has thus far been relatively indirectly affected by government cuts. I'm neither proud nor embarrassed of this, it is just the reality of my current situation, which I'm well-aware is not static.

When, frequenting one of my favorite neighborhood haunts I became enraged when the owner showed me a flyer aimed at saving our local fire station. "How could this happen?" I internally screamed. If there is a fire, I'd like to think that there is a truck that can well, you know, actually come and put the fire out.

Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) Fire Chief Millage Peaks and his team have used computer modeling software to analyze three years of 911 calls. They found that eighty percent of 911 calls to the LAFD are actually for medical assistance. The problem is the LAFD's staffing model is based on an older reality, where more calls concerned fires.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has recommended a plan which he suggests better reflects the new reality, with more resources spent on medical response, and fewer on fire trucks and fire fighters. The plan would save an estimated $54 million next fiscal year and $197 million over three years.

The new plan would put an end to the current rotating system, in which 22 fire companies are closed on a rotating basis and fire fighters are moved from station to station, working with people they have never met. Instead, some fire companies will be permanently closed--like the one in my area--and more resources will (hopefully) be put into medical response. To put this in perspective, the plan calls for the closing of 18 fire companies. There are 106 fire stations total in the city, some which house more than one company.

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It is an imperfect plan reflecting a painful truth. We have less money, but no less need for resources. The LAFD budget has decreased by $100 million in the last three years. Over that period of time, the department has not hired one firefighter, and it seems highly unlikely to do so in the coming years.

So where does this leave me, and us? There are of course two harsh realities weighing in favor of the proposal. First, the city has to cut spending somewhere. Second, if a system is based on an old set of circumstances, then it should be updated.

But the idea of no longer having a fire company by my abode is hardly thrilling. As I type I'm mentally thinking about where we keep our fire extinguishers. In addition, past experience, while a useful guide, cannot ever fully accurately predict what we will need for the future, particularly given that questions surrounding natural disasters should often begin, "when," and not "if." While I know we must cut some spending, before passing this plan, I would urge the members of the City Council to be satisfied that this is truly the best place to cut.

On Tuesday May 17th, the Los Angeles City Council will vote on the plan.

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