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Investigation finds skipped inspections, maintenance in fatal L.A. County shooting range fire

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Freddy Flores succumbed to burn injuries after a fire inside a

Deputy Freddy Flores’s casket is carried into St. Didicus Catholic Church

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Freddy Flores’s casket is carried into St. Didicus Catholic Church for his funeral mass on Thursday, May 9, 2024 in Sylmar, Calif.

Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

By Keri Blakinger
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES COUNTY, Calif. — State regulators have accused the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department of skipping inspections, neglecting maintenance and committing an array of “willful” safety violations that led to a 2023 mobile shooting range fire that killed one deputy, according to records obtained by The Times.

[PREVIOUSLY: L.A. County deputy succumbs to burn injuries after shooting range fire]

Last month, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health hit the department with just over $300,000 in fines for a series of safety violations in a mobile range trailer parked outside the Castaic jail complex. Inspectors said the buildup of combustible dust — such as accumulated gunpowder — caused the deadly blaze.

“The employer failed to conduct daily, weekly, monthly, and bi-annual preventive maintenance on the indoor mobile shooting trailer,” the agency wrote in a 19-page citation issued in April. “As a result on or about October 10, 2023, two employees suffered serious physical harm to their body when the indoor trailer exploded and caught on fire.”

Both of the burned deputies were hospitalized, and last month one of them — Alfredo “Freddy” Flores, 51 — died. He was buried on May 9 during a funeral in Sylmar.

“We now know that Freddy lost his life because mobile trailers like the one he was in had a known history of catching fire due to poor design and poor maintenance,” said attorney John Carpenter, who is representing the Flores family.

The Assn. of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs blamed county leaders on the Board of Supervisors for failing to “properly fund and equip” the Sheriff’s Department, which has a $4-billion budget.

“The fire that caused Freddy’s tragic death was foreseeable and avoidable,” union President Richard Pippin wrote in an email.

The Sheriff’s Department, meanwhile, said the blaze is still under investigation and declined to answer several specific questions about the incident, including whether the problems identified by the state have been fixed.

“We are working with County Counsel to evaluate the violations,” the department wrote in an email, “but the safety of our personnel is paramount and our primary concern.”

The agency did not say whether it appealed the citations, though state OSHA officials confirmed that it had. They said the fines have not been paid as the appeal is pending.

Since the late 1980s, the Sheriff’s Department has relied on mobile shooting ranges to ensure its roughly 10,000 deputies can test their firearms skills four times a year. The department can move the range from station to station each week instead of paying deputies overtime to spend a day driving to a fixed location.

The 50- to 53-foot mobile structures feature several shooting lanes overseen by a range master. The interior walls are covered with soundproofing foam, and a thick rubber or metal plate known as a bullet trap sits behind the target. As with other indoor ranges, shooting trailers require regular cleaning to prevent a dangerous buildup of lead and gunpowder.

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“When you shoot a gun, there’s gunpowder and explosives inside the cartridge,” one former range deputy told The Times in October. “Not all of that gunpowder burns — sometimes it ends up on the floor in front of you, sometimes it ends up on your hands.”

Multiple range experts told The Times last year that although mobile range fires appear to be rare, the buildup of unburned gunpowder at any range that isn’t adequately cleaned and ventilated can lead to fires. Now, state regulators say, it has.

One of the violations described in the Cal/ OSHA records — provided to The Times by the Flores family attorney — faulted the department for persistently failing to keep records of inspections dating to at least 2021, when the state hit the department with another citation for the same problem. It’s not clear how much the 2021 violation cost the county in fees, but the recent record-keeping failures netted a $1,000 fine.

In its April notice, the state fined the department $25,000 for failing to implement procedures for identifying workplace hazards “including the hazard of allowing the accumulation of propellant throughout the surfaces of indoor mobile shooting ranges” and for failing to do regular inspections.

“The employer did not engage in scheduled periodic inspections to identify unsafe work conditions in indoor mobile shooting ranges,” the citation notice said. “Employer did not identify hazards related to indoor mobile shooting ranges after employer discovered a new hazard when mobile shooting ranges caught fire.”

The department racked up another $25,000 fine for failing to fix safety concerns in a timely manner. Specifically, the state accused the agency of knowing about the danger of “accumulated propellant” inside range trailers and failing to “take sufficient steps to prevent the re-occurrence of fires in its indoor mobile shooting ranges.”

One of the costliest violations, which the state deemed “willful” and “serious,” faulted the department for allegedly failing to conduct the regular inspections and preventive maintenance recommended by the trailer manufacturer.

That violation netted a $125,000 fine, as did another “willful” and “serious” violation for failing to clean the range trailer often enough and allowing “the accumulations of combustible dust on floors, ledges, beams, equipment, machines, or elsewhere which caused an explosion and fire.”

Last year, department officials told The Times that the range trailer had been serviced and cleaned by an outside contractor in July and that the department’s Facilities Services Bureau did its normal trailer maintenance in September. It’s not clear how those statements square with the recent citations or whether that could factor into the pending appeal, and the department did not clarify.

In addition to the violations discovered last fall, the state’s April notice also included two pages of memos warning the department that a trailer outside Men’s Central Jail had combustible acoustic foam inside and lacked adequate ventilation and dust collection mechanisms. Officials said the trailer is not in use.

As The Times reported last year, the blaze that killed Flores was at least the fourth range trailer fire in the past decade. Though officials have released little information about some of the incidents, department records show at least one involved similar concerns about the buildup of gunpowder.

In 2019, deputies designing active shooter training in Marina del Rey accidentally started a fire while testing a flashbang trainer, a nonexplosive version of a flashbang, or stun grenade.

Steven Propster, one of the deputies involved in that incident, told The Times in an interview last year that he wanted to test out the loud device in a controlled setting, and the soundproofed range trailer seemed ideal.

The first time, Propster said, the device went off without a hitch. The second time, a small flame popped up. One of the other deputies stomped it out with his foot. When two more flames popped up nearby, Propster shouted for another deputy to bring a fire extinguisher.

“He doused it — but two seconds later, flames went running up the wall,” Propster said. “We ran toward the door, and the flame began to swirl and burn everything and chase us out. It was like a movie.”

According to internal affairs records Propster recently shared with The Times, the department’s Arson and Explosives Detail determined the fire was “accidental.” Its report noted that the flashbang trainers were advertised as devices that would “not become so hot they start fires” and that the blaze started when sparks landed on “combustible foam insulation hanging” inside the trailer.

“This fire was likely accelerated by the presence of unburned gunpowder that is inevitably present in this environment,” the arson report said, and it “could not be presumed that the act of throwing the flashbang trainer in the mobile range would present a substantial and unjustifiable risk of causing a fire.”

In the end, internal affairs records show, Propster was disciplined with a five-day suspension for unauthorized use of the flashbang trainer and for causing a fire that destroyed a $150,000 trailer and “resulted in media coverage” and “community outcry with concerns regarding possible damage to the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve.”

Propster told The Times he came away from the incident worried about the department’s continued use of range trailers.

“If you have one fire, it’s a one-off,” he said last year. “Two, OK, what’s causing this?”

More than six months after the 2023 blaze, the department has still released few details about what happened. The blaze started around 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 10 in the trailer, which was parked next to the men’s jail at Pitchess Detention Center.

Two deputies were inside the 53-foot trailer when the fire broke out, sheriff’s officials said. Flores was taking a department-mandated recertification test, and the other deputy was supervising. Both were rushed to the hospital with third-degree burns. Flores, a 22-year veteran of the department, remained hospitalized until his death.

” Freddy Flores struggled to live for six months,” said Carpenter, the family attorney. “We still don’t know all the details of what happened. We just know that it should not have happened.”

The department has not offered updates on the other deputy or released details about how the fire started. But immediately after the blaze, the department called in the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for help investigating and shut down all of its mobile shooting ranges.

The ATF recently confirmed that it provided assistance to the Sheriff’s Department, but said it could not give any details because the investigation is continuing.

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