Crossposted on Huffington Post
A few years ago, I was mountain biking in the hills above Santa Monica when I crashed and broke my neck. I was air lifted to the hospital by the Los Angeles Fire Department and spent many long months recovering.
The LAFD saved my life that morning. I’m forever grateful — as are countless Angelenos who rely on our incredible first responders. Every day, the rapid response of trained paramedics and firefighters is the difference between life and death. Theirs is a profession where seconds count – and they should be able to count on city government to provide the resources they need to do their job.
There is a role for government in our lives and we count on our elected officials to make sure it works cost-effectively and sensibly. City budgets and the choices made in them are not just mathematical exercises. They reflect a city’s priorities set by elected officials who vote on the budgets and oversee how taxpayers’ money is spent.
In 1966, Robert F. Kennedy (ironically, someone whose last days would involve Los Angeles’ emergency services) observed about government: “There is not a problem for which there is not a program. There is not a problem for which money is not being spent. There is not a problem or a program on which dozens or hundreds or thousands of bureaucrats are not earnestly at work. But does that represent a solution to our problems? Manifestly it does not. Money by itself is no answer. There are things more important than spending. Their names are imagination, courage and determination.”
Kennedy’s views are just as applicable today in Los Angeles City Hall — where imagination, courage and determination seem to be in short supply.
In addition to everyday incidents, Los Angeles is a city that is at risk for 13 out of 16 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) identified natural and man-made disasters (no, the Dodgers ownership did not make the list) — and we are particularly vulnerable to the destructive affects of wildfires, flooding and earthquakes. The LAFD is our insurance policy against such calamities.
Last year, the City Council voted unanimously to reduce LAFD staffing from 3,586 to 3,239 people and cut 318 firefighters, which prompted the reduction of resources (ambulances, fire engines and aerial ladder trucks) in 23 neighborhood fire stations. It wasn’t as if the LAFD was idly passing the time — they respond to over 1,000 incidents a day.
Casting his vote for the staffing cuts, City Council President Eric Garcetti vowed the City Council’s plan would “immediately increase fire service to the people of Los Angeles and reduce crucial paramedic response times.” Sounded good in the newspaper; too bad he was wrong.
City Councilmember Jan Perry voted for the cuts and Wendy Gruel, whose responsibilities as Controller are to “investigate and report problems with city departments and… improv[e] operations” has said absolutely nothing on the topic.
In his same speech back in 1966, Robert Kennedy noted a fourth quality in addition to imagination, courage and determination, in particular for those who hold elective office: candor.
Let’s take a candid look at how things turned out in the Los Angeles Fire Department.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA 1710) has a long-established standard for response times — the goal is to respond to an emergency call in less than five minutes 90% of the time. Every second matters. Fires can double in size every 60 seconds. CPR and medical intervention must be performed within four to six minutes after breathing stops, to prevent brain damage or death.
In 2008, Los Angeles was a leader in response time, with the LAFD arriving on the scene of a medical emergency within five minutes 86% of the time.
In 2011, after the cuts and Mr. Garcetti’s promises, the LAFD arrived at a medical emergency within five minutes only 59% of the time. The big drop from 86% to 59% — for every 100 incidents the LAFD responds to there are at least 27 victims who don’t get the timely help they need.
Recently, NBC reported the story of a West Hills family who called 911 after their house caught fire. The nearest fire station was just two miles away — which should have led to a quick response to the blaze. But because of the reduction in staff, LAFD didn’t arrive until nine minutes after the call was made. The fire truck in station 105 was out on a prior call and the back-up had been eliminated in the cutback. Firefighters had to be dispatched from another station further away. Today, a father who supports a family of four is in intensive care fighting for his life with burns on 60% of his body.
Unfortunately, as I have heard from firefighters, this is not an isolated incident.
During a recent visit I made to a fire station, the alarm went off and I hopped on the back of a fire truck to ride along in the response. I was stunned to find the driver looking at paper maps, and I asked the Chief Officer where was the GPS.
His response? Our trucks don’t have any.
Then he told me a story. Five years ago the department got an emergency call in a neighborhood in Woodland Hills that was not on the paper map. The engine got lost on the way to the fire and the people died. The City paid out millions in a wrongful death suit. Just five months ago, the same thing happened in the same neighborhood.
The first mistake is oversight. The second mistake, with lives at risk, borders on negligence. How many more tragedies need to occur before our city’s leadership understands what better government looks like?
Let’s find the imagination and dedication Kennedy spoke of and start implementing real solutions.
We need to provide the LAFD with the people and technology they need to save lives.
Every LAFD vehicle should have GPS to replace those paper maps and the City should install an integrated Automated Vehicle Locator (AVL) system. This technology will allow a centralized command center to track the progress and location of every engine in our fleet — saving critical seconds in dispatch time in addition to saving fuel and other resources.
These technologies have been successfully used around the country. In NYC an AVL pilot program led to a 33-second drop in response times. In Denver, dispatch times dropped to 31 seconds, half of the NFPA standard of 60 seconds.
The New York Times recently profiled Rio de Janeiro as a city of the future for how they use technology. Quite a contrast with Los Angeles where we still use magnets on the wall to track our resources.
Using technology to make resources go further is, however, only one part of the solution.
Los Angeles also has to find the financial resources in its budget to ensure our communities are safe and secure.
That’s going to take a city government which makes better choices and uses our money more efficiently and effectively.
We also have to grow the pie — creating an environment where the private sector can grow and create jobs. With these additional jobs comes an increased tax base to fund core government services.
Every time someone calls the fire department, seconds count as lives hang in the balance. There’s no excuse for Los Angeles’ city leaders to fail to understand this. There’s no excuse for the lack of transparency and accountability. There’s no reason why their past mistakes should continue to threaten our families’ safety.
It’s time for better government in Los Angeles.