New city report urges sweeping changes in L.A. Fire Dept.

Audit prescribes improvements to management style

City News Service | 3/6/2014, midnight

Management of the Los Angeles Fire Department needs to be streamlined, with the agency divided into four geographic bureaus, the “cumbersome” disciplinary process overhauled and the fire chief given a five- year employment contract, according to a consultant report released this week.

The report by PA Consulting, which was hired to review the deployment of LAFD resources after concerns arose about the department’s reporting of response times, also called for filling nearly 200 positions with civilian employees instead of sworn LAFD personnel, and found that the department suffers from a “cultural aversion to change and fear of litigation.”

Though worries raised by city leaders often focused on funding, management appears to be the bigger issue facing the department, City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana said of the report’s findings.

The fire department budget increased from $472 million in the 2011-12 fiscal year to $550 million this year, a financial trajectory that “few departments in the city have experienced,” he said.

“Clearly the finances have actually improved,” he said. “When you take that out of the equation, then you’re forced to look at the overall management of the department.”

The report recommends the appointment of a deputy chief to oversee the agency’s paramedic operations, which account for the majority of LAFD’s calls.

“The dedication, heroism and commitment to excellence of the department’s men and women are unquestioned and lead to exceptional performance in terms of limiting `fire loss’ relative to other U.S. departments ...,” according to the report. “However, the multiple interviews conducted ... with LAFD command staff, as well as with key city stakeholders and other U.S. fire departments and public safety agencies revealed significant cultural, organizational, process and technology challenges which seriously impair the department’s performance.”

The report found that the job of fire chief has devolved into a “revolving position, which has destabilized the LAFD.” It also found that some deputy, assistant and battalion chiefs have been put in positions despite lacking technical skills, and the rotation system of assistant and battalion chiefs prevents them from developing experience to improve the department.

The system has also led to a lack of support and loyalty among the rank-and-file for the chief.

“The disciplinary process is broken, driven by fear of litigation, reprisals and the perception that it is a `no-win’ situation,” according to the report. “The department is not sufficiently able to manage performance outside of the disciplinary process.”

The report also recommends hiring civilians to serve in management positions and calls for 193 positions to be “civilianized.” Some of the civilian positions would include employee relations director, communications directors, data analysis director and a new chief technology officer.

The Los Angeles Police Department underwent a similar switch from sworn to civilian employees over the past 10 to 15 years, and it is a model that has been adopted by fire and rescue departments outside the United States, according to the report.

The United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, the union that represents city firefighters, refused an invitation to review and get a briefing on a draft version of the report, Santana said.