Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's staff is working behind the scenes in an effort to silence public criticism of the Los Angeles Fire Department, the head of the firefighters' union told the City Council today.
United Fire Fighters of Los Angeles City President Pat McOsker, an outspoken critic of the department's eight-month-old deployment plan, told the council that a member of the mayor's staff called him over the weekend asking him to start speaking more kindly about the department.
Villaraigosa Press Secretary Peter Sanders declined to comment on whether a member of the mayor's staff called McOsker. McOsker declined to name the staffer who called him, but said the person wanted “to know if we can start talking nice and being nice about this and not so public.”
The accusation comes the week after Villaraigosa took a series of steps to address problems at the fire department, such as misrepresented response times, dispatch problems and a sudden change to the department's policy for releasing certain emergency response information.
The mayor ordered the department to hire a nationally renowned data expert to analyze its deployment model. He also asked the City Council to approve using money from the city's reserve fund to put six ambulance companies back in service.
“They know better than to try to silence us,” McOsker said.
During his two-minute public comment to the City Council, McOsker highlighted a delayed fire department response over the weekend. An LAFD ambulance and engine took six minutes to get to a Century City mall after receiving the dispatch about a choking victim, plus another one to two minutes of navigating the mall to find the patient, McOsker said. The victim went without oxygen long enough to go into cardiac arrest, he said.
Fire Department officials could not be immediately reached to verify the facts of the call or the status of the patient. The National Fire Protection Association recommends first responders take no longer than five minutes after a call comes in to a station to get to medical emergencies. McOsker said the department's response to the choking call took longer than the recommended time because a deployment plan enacted in July 2011 closed one fire company at Fire Station 92 in Century City, the closest station to the Century City mall.
The station's other ambulance and fire company were responding to a car crash when the choking call came in Saturday, he said. Instead, an ambulance and fire truck from two other stations responded to the call.
Had the fire company not been closed, McOsker said, firefighters with basic medical training might have been able to respond in time to clear the man's airway before he went into cardiac arrest.
“I am going to be public every damn day between now and the time that these companies are opened, because the bodies are piling up. People are suffering, and we've had it,” McOsker told the council.
Meanwhile, Sanders confirmed that Villaraigosa assigned former LAPD public information officer Mary Grady to the fire department about three weeks ago to help officials communicate with the media. The fire department had been without a senior community liaison officer at the time, Sanders said.
Villaraigosa's office asked Los Angeles World Airports, where Grady is managing director of media and public relations, to loan the veteran PIO to the LAFD for about a month. Grady is expected to stay on for another two weeks while Battalion Chief Armando Hogan takes over as the new head of external communication at the fire department.
Last week, the department came under fire from media organizations for withholding certain details about emergency calls, including locations and information about injuries. Fire Chief Brian Cummings said the move was made to comply with a federal medical privacy law. Responding to the media uproar, the mayor ordered the department last week to resume releasing information it had traditionally provided, as long as it wasn't precluded by federal law.