NEIGHBORHOOD POLITICS-The Los Angeles Fire Department (“LAFD”) is one of two departments that the Mayor says won’t be slashed in his 2020-21 budget. And for a very good reason – they have been on the front lines during this pandemic and will continue to be who we turn to when fires erupt in the coming months.
With almost 4,000 firefighters and support staff, and a budget of over $690 million last year, the LAFD is one of the largest departments serving Los Angeles. In normal times about 1,100 men and women, a quarter of whom are Firefighter/Paramedics, respond each day to an average of 1,368 accidents medical emergencies and fires, and transport 591 people to area hospitals.
Fire may be their chief business but the LAFD has many other responsibilities in connection with preserving life and property. And this past decade they’ve had to face many new challenges beyond COVID-19, including more and more dangerous wildfires, the homelessness crisis and a proliferation in the number of medical calls.
To get out in front of these problems, Los Angeles needs to provide the department with expanded manpower and training as well as issue-specific equipment to maximize their ability to control fire events to minimize damage and loss of life.
Almost 3,500 uniformed fire personnel protect life, property, and the environment through their direct involvement in fire prevention, firefighting, emergency medical care, construction and cannabis inspections, hazardous materials mitigation, and disaster response. Another 400 professionals provide technical and administrative expertise in their support.
This year, about half the LAFD budget is going towards fire suppression; another 30% to EMS. Of the approximately $650 million in salaries, almost one third is paid out in premium pay as overtime.
That last salary item is not sustainable.
The department must better balance staffing, equipment, maintenance, and community service obligations to ensure protection for the City without putting their employees at risk. A key objective should be to monitor and improve safety for all employees, including reducing hours.
Constant overtime costs are an indication that far too many personnel are working overlong hours, putting themselves at risk for work-related accidents and stress, both of which impacts firefighters’ ability to perform well.
The post-2008 cutbacks meant there was no funding for hiring and training in those years. Like many other City departments, the LAFD is now experiencing a retirement spike without a successor generation, which puts further emphasis on the need to solicit new recruits.
And train them.
Currently the bottleneck in the hiring process is the lack of sufficient Drill Towers -- aka Fire Academy classes -- the key component in training fire professionals. One Drill Tower services a limited number of recruits and the process from application to completion can take a year or more.
A second Drill Tower would allow the department to double its hiring each cycle from 50 to 100. But that will barely make a dent in the long-term systemic hiring problem.
To quadruple hiring to 200 firefighters per year (once shelter-at-home restrictions are lifted) by adding two additional Drill Towers is not contemplated in the current budget, but those costs would be offset by the savings in overtime within three to five years.
And, as these newly minted sworn staff replace senior firefighters taking retirement, the average yearly salary will drop.
Time (and money) must also be carved out for recertifications to ensure staff maintain and upgrade their skills, and for the endless practice required to work as a cohesive team in dangerous situations.
The department’s primary commitment is to prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery.
The best way to fight fires is to ensure they don’t start in the first place and that has a number of components – hazardous materials enforcement, construction and cannabis facilities inspection, community-focused education, and what can be learned from post-conflagration investigation, be they arson or accident.
The addition of technologically sophisticated tools to address these swiftly can help future prevention efforts.
Preparedness, response, and recovery takes training and teamwork.
Ah, the cost.
Even without suffering the scalping other departments face, a “zero balance” budget for the Fire Department means any new spending would have to be offset by lowered spending.
When demands have shot through the roof due to the pandemic.
But if you look four or five years down the road, additional staffing right now should save considerable sums of money. The City Council should be prioritizing big-picture savings.
Investing in training and recruitment will allow for proper staffing, reducing accidents, stress, mistakes, and illness as well as premium overtime costs.
The LAFD may not be able to offset these costs in one fiscal year. However, savings from tapering off overtime costs and lower average wages, as those pulling down seniority-inflated wages retire, will lead to significant savings in future years.
And not having the tools for the department to do its job properly would be a major disservice for Angelenos, including increasing overall long-term costs by helping drive the City into another bust cycle.
(The Budget Advocates are an elected, all volunteer, independent advisory body charged with making constructive recommendations to the Mayor and the City Council regarding the Budget, and to City Departments on ways to improve their operations, and with obtaining input, updating and educating all Angelenos on the City’s fiscal management.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.