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Fire Chief to City Council: Show Me the Money

In March, LAFD officials admitted reporting response-time data that inflated the department's success in meeting national response goals.

Los Angeles Fire Chief Brian Cummings defended his department Tuesday in front of the City Council against allegations that he had no plan to improve fire service.

Councilmen Eric Garcetti and Mitchell Englander, furious over what they said was the department's failure to produce a strategic plan requested six months ago, asked Cummings to report to the council with a way forward to improve response times to fires and emergencies.

The appearance was the latest chapter in a tangle between the council and the department dating back to March, when LAFD officials admitted reporting response-time data that inflated the department's success in meeting national response goals. Subsequent reports and an audit by the city controller found significant flaws in the way LAFD officials analyzed and reported response times.

Cummings told the council he moved to improve the department's data collection and analysis of response times and issued a request for $50 million in the next budget to reopen a shuttered training academy, pay civilian data experts and staff more ambulances.

"The simple answer is money. If you give us money, we'll have more technology, we'll have more civilian support staff, we'll have more resources in the field," Cummings said. "We're giving you the best fire service we can provide, given the resources that this council has provided for us."

Cummings agreed to report back to the City Council in 60 days with a one- to three- to five-year restoration plan for the department as requested today by the council.

The fire chief's statements drew a range of reactions from council members.

Garcetti, who is running for mayor, was irritated and disappointed by Cumming's appearance, saying he did not hear a strategic plan from the fire chief.

"We need action. We restoration. We need resources to bring down the response times now," Garcetti told reporters after the council meeting. "That's what I'm asking for ... I did not hear a plan today."

But Englander said he was surprised and pleased by the department's response.

"I expected to hear a lot of excuses. I think that's what we've been used to hearing," he said. "I walked in very frustrated, just waiting to hear more problems."     Englander credited the fire chief with establishing a task force to fix systemic problems with the LAFD's analysis of response times, which he called "the heart" of the problems. He also said he heard movement on his plan to create FIRESTAT L.A., a comprehensive system that tracks LAFD response trends to help guide future deployment of stations, fire engines and ambulances.     Cummings in July convened the Task Force on Information and Data Analysis to help restore the department's reputation by having objective experts in data analysis study the LAFD's data collection and analysis procedures. The IDA included data experts from the RAND Corp., USC and the Los Angeles Police Department, as well as sworn and civilian LAFD members.

The task force's first major report found that a lack of training and the department's 30-year-old computer-assisted dispatch system were among the main factors that led the LAFD to report false response times.

The task force's trained experts found that in September, LAFD personnel met national response time standards 60.9 percent of the time for emergency medical calls and 61.3 percent of the time for fires, far below the 90 percent goal -- embraced by the LAFD -- of the National Fire Protection Association.

Other council members, including City Council President Herb Wesson, today accepted blame for the department's performance by cutting its budget in recent years, though the council increased the LAFD budget this year by about $40 million.

"I do believe a lot of the problem is that the department is operating on bailing wire and bubble gum, and you need to have the resources to do the job," City Council President Herb Wesson said.

Councilman Dennis Zine, who is running for city controller, pressed Cummings on the department's response to an audit this spring by City Controller Wendy Greuel, which found LAFD response times to medical calls have increased since budget cuts began to hit the department in 2009. The audit also uncovered systemic data collection problems, including a failure to adequately code emergency and non-emergency calls.

Cummings said the department had begun work on fixing all but one of Greuel's recommendations.

Meanwhile, Greuel, who is running for mayor, took the City Council to task for waiting six months to hold the department accountable.

"This type of response from the council today is a day late and a dollar short. This discussion is long overdue and must be a top priority," Greuel said in a statement.

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