The Los Angeles Fire Department's response to medical emergencies slowed by 12 seconds citywide and as much as 20 seconds in the San Fernando Valley since budget cuts closed some fire companies, Controller Wendy Greuel reported Friday.
She also expressed concern about the quality of the department's response time data, noting that about one-third of the incidents reviewed were not coded properly and it was unclear whether they were emergency or non-emergency calls.
"It's unacceptable that the LAFD has not been able to accurately track its emergency response times," Greuel said, adding she hoped the audit would lay the groundwork for city officials to make improvements.
Greuel's audit was initiated after media reports suggested firefighter response times had slowed after the department budget was cut and fire engines and ambulances were taken offline or moved to other areas of the city.
Greuel's audit compared response times from June 2007 to July 2009, before the redeployment plan was enacted, with after it took effect in July 2011.
The report found response times for emergency medical calls increased an average of 12 seconds to four minutes, 57 seconds.
However, the response time to fires and non-medical emergencies dropped about 21 seconds - also to four minutes, 57 seconds.
Pat McOsker, president of the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, said the audit confirms his warnings over the past several years.
"You cannot cut the department by the 15 percent it has been cut and not have an impact," McOsker said. "In emergencies, seconds count and we have a system that delays the response."
LAFD Chief Brian Cummings could not address the specifics of the audit Friday. He said his department has been looking at all aspects of the response times to determine what is happening.
"Our goal is to get units to the correct address as quickly as possible," Cummings said. "That's what we are looking at and hope to resolve."
The City Council has set aside funds for an independent consultant to look at all aspects of the responses - from the time a call is made to 911 to when stations are advised of the calls and when units arrive on the scene.
Greuel said the department needs to look at two areas that could be affecting response times - how long it takes 911 dispatchers to transfer calls to the LAFD, and the protocols dispatchers have to follow before ordering a unit to respond.
McOsker said part of the problem is dispatchers are required to go through a list of more than 20 questions before an emergency call is placed with paramedics. The protocol was developed to try to reduce the number of calls made for nonemergencies.
"There was a time that once they determined the nature of the emergency, they could send a unit out," McOsker said. "Now, they have to go through the entire list of questions before they send anyone to the call."
Neither Greuel nor Cummings would say the answer to slowing emergency medical response would be hiring more firefighters and paramedics. More study is needed on the reason for the higher response times, they said.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who brought in an independent consultant to help analyze the response time data, welcomed Greuel's findings.
"The LAFD has been forced to do more with less as budget cuts brought on by the recession have affected multiple city departments," Villaraigosa said.
"However, public safety has remained a priority even during these difficult times. The LAFD is already addressing the issues raised in this audit and they will work quickly to improve call processing times."
The department has been forced to develop several new deployment plans over the years to respond to the budget cuts.
The LAFD originally had a modified deployment plan that resulted in shutting down several engine companies each day. Last year, the department adopted a plan to shift firefighters and ambulances to high demand areas.
More recently, the mayor called on the City Council to buy six new rescue ambulances to add to the fleet to help with emergency medical response.
The LAFD, with an annual budget of $425million, now has 34 ambulances plus 89 paramedic ambulances available at 109 stations.
Greuel's audit also confirmed earlier studies that nearly 85 percent of all calls to the LAFD are for medical reasons.