LAFD falls be­hind on big build­ing in­spec­tions

Thou­sands are months or years over­due for re­views

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Paul Pringle and Ben Welsh

The Los An­ge­les Fire Depart­ment has fallen months and even years be­hind on safety in­spec­tions of thou­sands of large apart­ment build­ings, schools, ho­tels, churches and other struc­tures that it con­sid­ers the great­est risks for loss of life in ma­jor fires, a Times in­ves­ti­ga­tion found.

The depart­ment is lag­ging on in­spec­tions for about 6,800 of the build­ings — a third of the struc­tures the LAFD clas­si­fies as a pri­or­ity mainly be­cause they’re oc­cu­pied by large num­bers of peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments ob­tained un­der the Cal­i­for­nia Public Records Act.

Nearly half of those build­ings were more than a year over­due for an in­spec­tor’s visit as of last week, and 1 in 5 was over­due by two years or more, a Times anal­y­sis de­ter­mined. In ad­di­tion, thou­sands of smaller apart­ment build­ings have never been in­spected, in vi­o­la­tion of a state law re­quir­ing an­nual checks of hous­ing struc­tures with three or more units, ac­cord­ing to LAFD records and in­ter­views.

The list of high-oc­cu­pancy build­ings over­due for in­spec­tion in­cludes some at the mas­sive Park La Brea apart­ment com­plex in Mid-Wil­shire, Birm­ing­ham High School in Van Nuys and the his­toric Mil­len­nium Bilt­more Ho­tel in down­town L.A.

For Park La Brea, home to more than 10,000 peo­ple, four of 18 residential tow­ers are over­due for in­spec­tions.

At one of the build­ings, the LAFD had no records show­ing up-to-date fire-safety tests and cer­ti­fi­ca­tions for el­e­va­tors, emer­gency power gen­er­a­tors and wa­ter sys­tems.

Ten­ant rep­re­sen­ta­tives ex­pressed sur­prise that the depart­ment had fallen be­hind on in­spec­tions.

“If there is a fire, you’re go­ing to have a huge prob­lem,” said Jason Green, a re­tired sur­geon who is a leader of Renters United at Park La Brea. “Your life is at stake.”

Park La Brea’s residential ser­vices di­rec­tor did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

Over the years, sev­eral fires have bro­ken out at the com­plex, although no in­juries were re­ported, ac­cord­ing to the LAFD and news ac­counts.

The list of build­ings over­due for in­spec­tions in­cludes vir­tu­ally ev­ery type of struc­ture: movie the­aters, yoga par­lors, pet clin­ics, McDon­ald’s restau­rants, hair sa­lons. Sin­gle-fam­ily homes are an ex­cep­tion; they are not re­quired to un­dergo reg­u­lar in­spec­tions.

Fire Chief Ralph M. Ter­razas de­clined re­quests for an in­ter­view.

Deputy Chief John Vi­dovich, who over­sees in­spec­tions, blamed the back­log on staffing cuts made dur­ing the re­ces­sion, which re­sulted in the loss of 22 of the LAFD’s roughly 150 in­spec­tors.

In­spec­tors make sure sprin­klers and smoke alarms work, fire ex­tin­guish­ers are filled, cor­ri­dor doors close au­to­mat­i­cally to slow the spread of f lames, and es­cape routes are well lighted and free of clut­ter.

The Fire Depart­ment is re­spon­si­ble for in­spect­ing tens of thou­sands of build­ings. Timeta­bles for in­spec­tions vary from twice an­nu­ally for larger apart­ments and ho­tels — with one per­formed at night — to ev­ery three years for smaller build­ings where fewer peo­ple would be en­dan­gered by a fire.

LAFD Capt. Scott Miller, a depart­ment ex­pert on the mat­ter, said skip­ping in­spec­tions or miss­ing dead­lines is dan­ger­ous be­cause safety equip­ment can quickly be­come faulty, threat­en­ing lives and mak­ing it tougher to fight fires.

“These build­ings are very much like a bat­tle­ship,” Miller said. “If you’re not fix­ing it, it’s de­te­ri­o­rat­ing.”

The depart­ment ini­tially de­clined The Times’ re­quest un­der the state open records law for a list of build­ings over­due for in­spec­tion. Of­fi­cials said f laws in the LAFD’s com­puter data­bases made re­triev­ing the ad­dresses too dif­fi­cult.

“There is no easy way to pull that data,” Vi­dovich said ear­lier this month.

How­ever, two depart­ment sources told The Times the ad­dresses were read­ily avail­able through sim­ple searches on LAFD com­put­ers. One source demon­strated for a re­porter how swiftly the ad­dresses could be found, and pro­vided hun­dreds of them in a mat­ter of min­utes.

Af­ter The Times con­fronted of­fi­cials with its find­ings, the depart­ment pro­vided the ad­dresses.

One of the depart­ment’s

worst in­spec­tion rates is for schools and churches. As of the end of March, 62% of those build­ings — 2,432 struc­tures — were past the dead­line for in­spec­tions, ac­cord­ing to an in­ter­nal LAFD re­port ob­tained by The Times. Those fig­ures do not in­clude schools and churches in the San Fer­nando Val­ley. In the cat­e­gory of Val­ley build­ings cov­er­ing schools and churches, 28% of in­spec­tions were over­due, the re­port shows.

The re­port is marked “for of­fi­cial use only, no re­lease.”

Some build­ings at the 3,100-stu­dent Birm­ing­ham High — in­clud­ing class­rooms — were nearly a year and a half over­due for in­spec­tions, other records show.

That was news to Karen Hen­der­son, mother of a Birm­ing­ham High stu­dent and pres­i­dent of the par­ent­teacher or­ga­ni­za­tion. “These are the kinds of things you can’t let slip,” Hen­der­son said.

In 2010, a fire dam­aged the high school’s stu­dent store, LAFD records show. No in­juries were re­ported.

Across town from Van Nuys, in­spec­tions were al­most two years past due for the West­lake area’s Our Lady of Loretto Catholic Church and its ele­men­tary school, ac­cord­ing to the records.

“I would like to have it cleared up,” said Fa­ther Hieu Tran, the pas­tor, af­ter The Times in­formed him of the sit­u­a­tion. “Not only for this church, but all the churches around L.A., for the safety of the peo­ple.”

Ac­cord­ing to LAFD records, the Bilt­more Ho­tel, which has hosted pres­i­dents, for­eign dig­ni­taries and rock stars, was due for in­spec­tion four months ago. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the ho­tel did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

The LAFD was be­hind on in­spec­tions for 45% of hos­pi­tals, med­i­cal of­fices, nurs­ing homes, jails and other build­ings clas­si­fied as “in­sti­tu­tional” struc­tures, ac­cord­ing to the depart­ment records.

About 5,700 other build­ings, most of them smaller, were over­due for in­spec- tions, the records show. That does not in­clude the smaller residential build­ings that have never had the an­nual in­spec­tions re­quired by the state.

Vi­dovich and other of­fi­cials said they did not know why the smaller build­ings have gone with­out in­spec­tions, de­spite the state man­date in force for decades. “I can’t re­ally speak to that,” Vi­dovich said.

State Fire Mar­shal Tonya Hoover said her of­fice has lim­ited power to en­force the in­spec­tion rules. “There would be noth­ing for me to do,” Hoover said. “The state fire mar­shal doesn’t have the au­thor­ity to shut down the L.A. Fire Depart­ment.”

LAFD of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edged that the depart­ment’s poor in­spec­tions record stretches back many years, even be­fore the re­ces­sion­ary staff re­duc­tions.

A gen­er­a­tion ago, LAFD lead­ers promised long-term fixes for the in­spec­tion pro­gram af­ter a fire killed 10 peo­ple at an apart­ment build­ing near down­town. An in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the 1993 tragedy dis­cov­ered fire code vi­o­la­tions that al­lowed flames to race through the struc­ture. The Times sub­se­quently re­ported that the depart­ment’s in­spec­tions in the area were in­fre­quent and spotty.

This April, af­ter The Times first in­quired about in­spec­tions, the depart­ment’s chief deputy for emer­gency oper­a­tions, Mario Rueda, sent a memo urg­ing bureau com­man­ders to step up the ex­am­i­na­tions.

Rueda’s memo, which The Times ob­tained from sources, in­structed the com­man­ders to, “at a min­i­mum,” com­plete night in­spec­tions of larger apart­ments and ho­tels, which he la­beled “one of the riski­est oc­cu­pan­cies for loss of life due to fire.”

The depart­ment brass also drafted a re­port mak­ing the case for the city Fire Com­mis­sion to ap­peal for the hir­ing of more in­spec­tors. The civil­ian over­sight panel is sched­uled to ad­dress the re­port at its meet­ing Tues­day. paul.pringle@latimes.com ben.welsh@latimes.com

Jay L. Clen­denin

FOUR of 18 residential tow­ers at Park La Brea, home to more than 10,000 peo­ple, are over­due for in­spec­tions by the Los An­ge­les Fire Depart­ment. Over the years, sev­eral fires have bro­ken out at the com­plex.

Jay L. Clen­denin Los An­ge­les Times

AN EN­TRANCE to the Park La Brea apart­ment com­plex, where ten­ant rep­re­sen­ta­tives ex­pressed sur­prise that the LAFD had fallen be­hind on in­spec­tions.

A TIMES IN­VES­TI­GA­TION

Gina Ferazzi Los An­ge­les Times

THE MIL­LEN­NIUM Bilt­more Ho­tel in down­town Los An­ge­les, which has hosted pres­i­dents, for­eign dig­ni­taries and rock stars, was due for in­spec­tion four months ago, ac­cord­ing to LAFD records.

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