Fire the Fire Chief

After the past three weeks, one maddening and totally unanswered question hangs over the city of Los Angeles.

That question: what does a fire chief have to do to get fired?

Because the current chief, Brian Cummings, appears to have committed a series of offenses that would cost anyone their job in any real world situation.

Imagine for example if you'd been sending bogus data to your boss and to your customers. And that when you were called on it, instead of taking responsibility for the problem, you stop sending your boss and customers any data at all.

That's what Cummings has done. First it was discovered that the fire department had been providing incorrect information about response times -- information based on projections rather than actual performance.

Cummings responded not by fixing the problem but by stopping the release of even basic information about the location of fires. He also has not provided full information to city auditors.

Ordered by the mayor to provide the public with public information, he refused, citing an opinion from the city attorney.

This isn't an only-in-LA story.

California governments, at the state level and at the local level, divide up executive authority in ways that frustrate sound management and accountability. LA has both an elected mayor and an elected city attorney. That's how a fire chief gets his boss telling him to do something and his attorney telling him not to do it.

The conflict over direction seems to have spared Cummings for now. But it shouldn't. The chief has an obligation to the public that he has repeatedly failed to meet -- first in providing the wrong information and subsequently limiting the information provided.

Fire departments shouldn't behave this way, anywhere. And in California, this kind of behavior is doubly foolish, because fire departments are on the budget chopping block. Compared to other states, California's local governments spend heavily on fire departments and firefighters.

Fire departments -- if they want to beat back the cuts -- should go the extra mile to share information with the public and inspire public confidence.

After this episode, Cummings has no hope of regaining the public's trust. It's time for him to step aside. If he won't go, he should be removed – if the city can figure out how.

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