After years of taking budget cuts and under pressure to improve response times, a city panel on Friday endorsed a county grand jury report urging that full funding be restored to the Los Angeles Fire Department.
At the same time, the City Council's Public Safety Committee urged that steps be taken to hire more firefighters to fill the gap caused by retirements and attrition, as well as continue exploring greater use of civilians.
"This is an incredibly serious matter," said Councilman Mitch Englander, who chairs the committee. "I hope we will all be in lockstep to get back to full resources as soon as we can."
The grand jury, in its report released last July, said the problems with LAFD response times was due to the series of budget cuts it has had to take over the years, reducing the number of firefighters and paramedics. It urged that funding and staffing be restored to the levels they were in 2008.
At that time, the department was receiving $591 million a year. But with the nationwide recession and the loss of revenue to the city, it was reduced by $66 million to $495 million.
In recent years, the budget has been able to grow slightly to the point where it is now at $519 million to support a sworn staff of about 3,000 firefighters.
Englander pointed out that part of the reason for reducing the budget was assurances from fire officials that it would not affect response times. "That turned out to not be the case," he said. "What we need to do now is restore the public's faith in the data to make sure the funding is going into the right places. We do need to restore the budget, but we need to do it in the right way."
As part of that, the LAFD hopes to have five classes for new recruits this year to add between 150 and 160 new firefighters. Still, officials said it will not be until the end of 2015 when it is back to upwards of 3,300 firefighters.
As for increased use of civilians, it remains an issue that divides the LAFD management and its union, the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City.
Fire officials have been trying to pursue the training of civilians as emergency dispatchers, something its medical adviser, Dr. Marc Eckstein, said is being used in other fire departments, adding that many departments have gone to a complete civilization or a hybrid where firefighters serve as supervisors.
But UFLAC President Frank Lima raised concerns over how it would affect responses. "There have been studies that bringing civilians to the dispatch center will cost more money and compromise the quality of the work," Lima said. ___