LAFD fire marshal replaced over thousands of late inspections

Staffing shortages were blamed for buildings months, years late for inspections

By Paul Pringle and Ben Welsh
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — After months of internal upheaval over a backlog in inspections, the Los Angeles Fire Department is replacing the official in charge of enforcing fire safety codes for apartment houses, schools, hospitals and other high-occupancy buildings.

Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas said in a staff memo that Fire Marshal John Vidovich will step down next month and be assigned to the mayor’s office in an advisory position focused on new construction. A Fire Department spokesman said Vidovich intends to retire in May.

Vidovich leaves one of the LAFD’s top jobs barely two years into his tenure. Last year, he pledged to reform the agency’s Fire Prevention Bureau after a Times investigation found that about 6,800 buildings were months or even years overdue for an inspection.

But several senior inspectors later told The Times that, under Vidovich, the bureau put the public at risk by requiring them to cut corners on safety reviews in a frantic effort to clear the backlog.

The labor union that represents the inspectors and other firefighters earlier this year voted to approve a resolution of “no confidence” in Vidovich. Before the department decided to replace Vidovich, the union, a powerful player at City Hall, was preparing to pressure Mayor Eric Garcetti and other elected officials to oust him.

"We're very happy," said Capt. Frank Lima, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City. "We had been talking about doing something, but then he got moved."

Through a department spokesman, Vidovich and Terrazas declined interview requests. In a written statement, Terrazas said Vidovich will play a “critical role” in helping Garcetti’s office streamline the construction review process, in addition to expanding safety regulations for abandoned oil and gas wells.

Assistant Chief Kristin Crowley will become acting fire marshal next month. Department spokesman Peter Sanders said Crowley will be promoted to the job permanently once Vidovich retires. 

Crowley is the first woman named to the post. Attempts to reach her for comment were unsuccessful. 

Garcetti’s representatives either declined to answer specific questions about the shakeup or did not respond to interview requests. Deputy Mayor Jeff Gorell said in a statement that Vidovich will “complement” the office’s efforts to improve public safety.

Lima said he had met with political strategists to develop a plan to unseat Vidovich. With Vidovich heading out the door, Lima said, the union remains comfortable with its earlier decision to back Garcetti in his upcoming reelection bid. 

“We’re with him,” Lima said.

In 2013, when Garcetti won the mayor’s office, the union supported his opponent, then-City Controller Wendy Greuel. 

The 2015 Times investigation found that the LAFD was lagging on inspections for a third of the buildings it considers the greatest safety risk because they're occupied by large numbers of people. Nearly half of them were more than a year overdue for an inspection of their sprinklers, alarms and other life-saving equipment. 

In addition, thousands of smaller apartment buildings had never been inspected, in violation of state law. Inspectors mainly blamed staffing shortages.

The department subsequently launched what it called Operation Catch-up, assigning more firefighters to serve as inspectors. 

In a recent report, Terrazas and Vidovich said that nearly all of the overdue inspections had been cleared. But the inspectors who spoke to The Times said those numbers were bogus.

"That's all fraudulent," said Capt. Dave Riles, a 23-year veteran of the department.

Many of the inspections that were counted as completed, Riles and others said, were performed by poorly trained firefighters who were coaxed by supervisors to relax safety rules and overlook violations.

The result, the inspectors said, is that buildings across the city have been improperly declared safe.

In response to those complaints, Garcetti said in a statement that “safety can never be compromised, and bureaucracy can never be an excuse for inaction.”

Copyright 2016 the Los Angeles Times

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