Having an efficient fire department is something we’ve all taken for granted.
However, during a series of press events, members of the LA County Fire Department (LACoFD) have shared their day-to-day challenges proving that all is not well for those who have chosen this noble profession.
LA County Fire Department covers areas throughout the Valley that include Sylmar and La Tuna Canyon as well as areas north of the Valley, including Santa Clarita and Lancaster.
From various vantage points, firefighter personnel from stations throughout LA county shared the same message: The fire department has outdated equipment, not enough staffing and needs increased support.
County Fire Chief Daryl Osby spoke candidly about the impact aging equipment has had on the department when fighting the LA/Ventura wildfires.
“Not only did we have to allocate resources to the Woolsey Fire, but we still needed to assure that we had resources here to protect the rest of the county’s — via 175 stations — 2,300-square miles,” he said. “We had dedicated men and women coming to work to help, but we ran out of equipment.”
He also said more than half of the equipment being used in emergencies is at least 20 years old or more.
When asked about the human toll, Osby delivered shocking news.
“Typically the number one cause of firefighter death would be line-of-duty death. But, unfortunately, it is now suicide,” he said.
“There are a couple of things I wasn't prepared for when I took this position. As the fire chief for the last five years, I've spoken at over 50 funerals.”
Osby has been in the firefighting profession for more than 45 years. He stressed that understaffing, firefighters and paramedics not having the equipment they need, and the stress of the profession, have made the job more difficult.
The chief also noted cancer as being an uncomfortably common cause of death for firefighters, due to exposure to chemicals and materials during combustion that their breathing apparatuses and protective gear are unable to prevent from being absorbed through the skin.
Osby, with other key members of the department, have placed an emphasis to collaborate with the board to address mental and emotional stress.
“Even within our organization we’ve had seven suicides in the last eight years,” he said
With staff shortages, the demands of the job have increased and can adversely impact families. Osby shared one example of a wife who would visit her husband’s fire station and even cook dinner for everyone just so that she could see her husband. A year later, they were divorced.
Capt. Jason Ghorbani of Firehouse 33 in Lancaster has one of the busiest stations in the county; with one call after another, his firefighters are on move constantly. Those that have visited the station say it appears that the calls never stop, and it can put firefighters into a state of exhaustion.
"I can tell you what the alarming rate of escalation of call volume is starting to look like. My firehouse on average does 34.7 runs a day. When the heat came in we’d get over 40 runs a day. And we have to manage those runs with three apparatus and ten personnel,” Ghorbani said.
“We do more with less. But at some point we’re not going to be able to manage.”
Ghorbani also stressed the bonding culture of firefighters to push forward to do the job that's so necessary.
Kevin Hernandez works at the 9-1-1 center that dispatches all of the emergency calls. “We’re obviously dealing with a lot of stress everyday. We're taking 400 to 800 calls a day; during the Woolsey fire it was close to 4,000 calls. So it's stressful, but through good teamwork we're able to get the job done.”
When asked what his “Christmas wishlist” would be, Hernandez pointed to updating their systems.
"Obviously more staffing and a better mapping system. On the weekends a lot of people like to go hiking. Some get injured and it’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly where somebody is. It takes other resources, such as helicopters, trying to figure out where the patient is and get them the assistance that they need,” Hernandez said.
"As far as staffing goes, take the Woosley Fire for example. We had thousands of calls coming in and — while talking calls for the fires — we also have to take calls for other medical emergencies and other structural fires within the county of Los Angeles.”
Dr. Clayton Kazan is the medical director for LACoFD and an EMS Specialist. He also knows firsthand about doing more with less. He’s the department’s only physician.
“The fire department in New York has nine medical directors and two fellows. [Here] we have me as the one full-time medical director, and we share one fellow. So it is really, really stretched,” Kazan said.
“When we talk about this talking about this increasing call volume, and the fact that the call volume has gone up 50%, you need to understand that that the call volume does not spread out evenly. It most disproportionately affects vulnerable patient populations, like Capt. Ghorbani’s station in Lancaster.”
Kazan went on to say, “for every minute that a defibrillator is delayed in getting to the patient, there is a 7-10% drop in that patient’s survival. Which communities are the ones most impacted? The ones that are accessing 911 the most because they’re the ones whose apparatuses are the busiest.”
Ghorbani said that equipment can’t be taken from communities that are quieter to give to communities that need it the most because all communities need and deserve to be covered.
The press meeting was part of a public awareness campaign to find money to bring the department’s equipment up to date.
Supervisor Janice Hahn attended the series of meetings and is supporting the effort. Her father, the late Kenneth Hahn, was a great admirer of firefighters and, during his long tenure as a Supervisor, is credited with helping establish emergency paramedic care and the development of emergency freeway call boxes in California.
“People always want to know how do I carry on his legacy,” Janice Hahn said. “I can't think of anything more important for me at this moment in time to make sure the LA County Fire Department has the resources it needs to go another 50 years and provide the kind of service that really matters to the quality of life for the over 10 million residents of Los Angeles county.”
"We have some very extremely dedicated men and women in this organization that are doing an outstanding job. Please try to understand their challenges and help us, help me, help the supervisors provide all the staffing, the tools to continue to do an exceptional job,” said Osby.
“The sky’s not falling, but we’re definitely in a storm.”