LAFD to scram­ble on safety checks

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

Los An­ge­les city of­fi­cials moved quickly Tues­day to re­vamp the Fire Depart­ment’s bro­ken in­spec­tion pro­gram and be­gin tack­ling thou­sands of over­due safety checks of big apart­ment build­ings, schools, churches, ho­tels and other struc­tures where the great­est num­ber of lives would be en­dan­gered in fires.

Af­ter The Times re­ported that the depart­ment was months and even years be­hind on in­spec­tions, the civil­ian Fire Com­mis­sion ap­proved a plan to boost the num­ber of in­spec­tors and re­or­ga­nize the bureau re­spon­si­ble for en­sur­ing that large build­ings meet city and state stan­dards for sprin­klers, alarms and other life­sav­ing equip­ment.

At the same time, two lead­ers of the City Coun­cil’s public safety com­mit­tee di­rected the Los An­ge­les Fire Depart­ment to re­port to the panel on ef­forts to over­haul the in­spec­tion sys­tem. The law­mak­ers said the LAFD

should con­sider bring­ing in help from the county Fire Depart­ment or ask­ing re­tired in­spec­tors to re­turn to work.

“The first re­spon­si­bil­ity of the LAFD isn’t to put out the fire; it is to pre­vent the fire from hap­pen­ing in the first place,” Coun­cil­man Mitchell Eng­lan­der said. “This in­spec­tion back­log puts lives across the city at risk, and the depart­ment must work to ad­dress this is­sue and take all steps nec­es­sary to elim­i­nate this back­log.”

LAFD of­fi­cials are sched­uled to ad­dress the coun­cil com­mit­tee next week.

Fire Chief Ralph M. Ter­razas, ap­pointed last year by Mayor Eric Garcetti with a man­date to re­form the depart­ment, blamed the over­due in­spec­tions on bud­get cuts dat­ing to the re­ces­sion. “This is­sue has been cre­ated over mul­ti­ple years,” Ter­razas said. “It will not be fixed overnight.”

Ter­razas spoke as the Fire Com­mis­sion, a panel of may­oral ap­pointees who over­see the depart­ment, voted 5 to 0 to add eight in­spec­tors to LAFD’s Fire Preven­tion Bureau. The bureau now has about 130 in­spec­tors.

“We are a long way from where we need to be,” said Com­mis­sioner Steven Fazio, a busi­ness­man from the San Fer­nando Val­ley. “We’re not happy about it, but we know we’re on the move to get to where we want to go.”

The LAFD of­fi­cial who over­sees in­spec­tions, Fire Mar­shal John Vi­dovich, told the com­mis­sion, “Our in­ter­nal au­dits found the same is­sues as in the L.A. Times ar­ti­cle. Un­til we fix these is­sues, we will not be as ef­fi­cient as we should be.

“It is my per­sonal goal as the fire mar­shal to make sure ev­ery build­ing in the city of Los An­ge­les is in­spected in a timely man­ner,” he said.

Garcetti said he and LAFD lead­ers were work­ing to im­prove the depart­ment’s per­for­mance on in­spec­tions. “I want to as­sure An­ge­lenos that the LAFD is work­ing hard to pre­vent fires as well as put them out,” he said in a state­ment.

The mayor said he was proud that the num­ber of fa­tal­i­ties in build­ing fires had de­clined: to six so far this year, com­pared with 13 at the same point in 2014.

The Times’ in­ves­ti­ga­tion found that about 6,800 build­ings the LAFD clas­si­fies as a top pri­or­ity, mainly be­cause they’re oc­cu­pied by large num­bers of peo­ple, were over­due for in­spec­tion.

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, ac­cord­ing to a Times anal­y­sis of LAFD records. 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.

In ad­di­tion, thou­sands of smaller apart­ment build­ings have never been in­spected, in vi­o­la­tion of a long-stand­ing state law re­quir­ing an­nual checks of hous­ing struc­tures with three or more units, ac­cord­ing to LAFD records and in­ter­views.

Ter­razas and other LAFD of­fi­cials said they did not know why the depart­ment failed to in­spect the smaller build­ings. The chief said the depart­ment lacked the staffing to catch up on those in­spec­tions.

“We don’t have enough peo­ple to do that,” he said. “That’s some­thing we have to take a hard look at be­cause it’s not the best use of our re­sources.”

Ter­razas said the LAFD hoped the city’s hous­ing depart­ment would shoul­der more of the in­spec­tion load. Hous­ing in­spec­tors are re­quired to ex­am­ine the smaller build­ings ev­ery three years, in­clud­ing for com­pli­ance with some fire safety codes.

Timeta­bles for LAFD in­spec­tions vary from twice an­nu­ally for larger apart­ments and ho­tels — with one per­formed at night — to ev­ery three years for smaller build­ings.

The depart­ment ini­tially de­clined a 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.

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.

Ter­razas said the LAFD’s de­lay in re­leas­ing the ad­dresses re­sulted from a mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

“My po­si­tion is we should be trans­par­ent,” he said. “These are all public records.” paul.pringle@latimes.com ben.welsh@latimes.com

Ir­fan Khan Los An­ge­les Times

LAFD CHIEF Ralph Ter­razas, left, and Fire Com­mis­sioner An­drew Glazier at Tues­day’s meet­ing. Ter­razas said the back­log “will not be fixed overnight.”

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