The Los Angeles Fire Department on Thursday will begin implementing a program of rolling cutbacks intended to close a $39 million budget deficit but decried by critics as likely to imperil the public by slowing down emergency response.
Fire Chief Douglas Barry developed the "Modified Coverage Plan," which provides for not staffing one battalion command team, three emergency battalion offices, 15 fire trucks and nine ambulances every day for a year starting Thursday.
The "brownouts" will occur on a rotating basis at different fire stations throughout the city. The 87 firefighters assigned to those units will be used to fill vacancies on remaining fire trucks and ambulances that otherwise have been staffed by off-duty employees working overtime.
Barry, who has described the budget cuts as "devastating," has stressed his plan would keep all the city's fire stations open and staffed with at least one fire truck or ambulance.
But he has admitted it would lengthen response times, further increase the workload at fire stations, and make fewer fire engines available for pre- deployment to areas with high fire danger.
Aside from "brownouts," the department also plans to stop recruiting new firefighters and maintain only one academy class instead of the current three. But even with all those cost-cutting measures, the Fire Department will remain $13 million in the red.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has asked the City Council to close the deficit by transferring money from the Reserve Fund, but Councilman Bernard Parks, chair of the council's Budget and Finance Committee, has said there was no guarantee the city will have that cash available.
If funding cannot be secured, Barry plans to shut down an additional eight fire resources -- either fire trucks or ambulances -- every day for a year, resulting in a total of 125 fewer fire department personnel working daily.
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About 100 firefighters marched to City Hall Wednesday the protest the service cutbacks, which, they said, would end up costing lives.
United Firefighters of Los Angeles City President Pat McOsker said that taking 15 fire trucks and nine ambulances out of service every day would increase emergency response times.
"In my line of work, a few seconds' delay could mean the difference between life and death," he said.
"When you take away 10 percent of the resources we have, we already know what's going to happen," McOsker said. "We're going to have delayed responses. The result of delayed responses is death."
He said that in 1991, when the Fire Department last took some of its fire engines and ambulances out of service to cut costs, there were "bad outcomes for patients" and "tragic fire deaths."