Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

Fireman called victim of staff cuts
Union: safety
aide needed

By Rick Orlav
Daily News Staff Writer

Fire Capt. Joseph C. Dupee--the first Los Angeles firefighter to die in the line of duty in 14 years--would still be alive today if a key safety position had not been eliminated to save money, union officials said Tuesday.

Because the scene was confused and smoke so thick, Dupee ordered firefighters to pull back before someone got hurt Sunday at a South Central warehouse fire.

But something went wrong and Dupee did not make it out. On Tuesday, firefighters union officials claimed he was a victim of staff cuts imposed last year that eliminated a vital crew member whose job was to keep track of everyone at a fire scene and to sound the alarm quickly.

"This could have been avoided," said Ken Buzzell of the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City.

"Last year, we would have had a division staff assistant on duty, watching everyone who went in, where they were and how many came out.

"They didn't know who came out. At first, they thought someone else was missing, and it took time until they determined it was Joe Dupee. Then there was a delay in getting the rear door opened."

Buzzell said it remains unclear why Dupee, 38, a 17-year veteran from Valencia, was unable to escape or how much time it took for others to determine he was trapped inside Pacific Bird and Supply, 5972 Western Ave. Buzzell said he believes eliminating division staff assistants, who drove battalion chiefs to fire scenes and kept track of firefighters entering and leaving burning buildings, removed an important safety element.

But Fire Chief Bamattre said it is premature to say whether staffing in general, or the elimination of staff assistants specifically, contributed to Dupee's death. In seeking to eliminate the jobs three years ago, Mayor Richard Riordan described the assistants, each paid $56,806 per year, as little more than "chauffeurs" for battalion chiefs.

Bamattre said the role of assistants would be reviewed as part of a full investigation,which he promised.

"That includes the environment,the fire and the staffing," Bamattre said. "To say it was because of the budget is premature."

A spokeswoman for Riordan agreed.

"Right now, all our energies should be devoted to the family of Capt. Dupee," Noelia Rodriguez said. "An investigation will be done, but we shouldn't use this death as a battle over the budget."

Buzzell said the other firefighters were able to leave through a front door where an engineer was shining a light though the thick smoke.

"It was so dark and thick, no one could see in there," Buzzell said. "We don't know why (Dupee) wasn't able to see it."

An emergency rescue team later found Dupee on his back, with his face mask off and pieces of the ceiling next to him.

Battalion Chief Ralph Ramirez said a special investigation team has been formed to look into the death--the 66th in the LAFD's history dating back to 1902--and the cause of the fire.

Until a clear cause is established, the fire is being looked at as arson, making Dupee's death a possible homicide.

The debate
There has been a long debate within City Hall over the value of the staff assistants, used by the department almost as citywide rovers who respond to fires and help coordinate the LAFD response.

Bamattre, under pressure from Riordan and the City Council, agreed last year to reduce the number of staff assistants.

But Buzzell said they serve an invaluable role as fire-scene observers who also help in the deployment of personnel.

"We can't bring Joe back because he's dead," Buzzell said. "What we can do is make sure not one other firefighter follows Joe's footsteps to the grave.


Union blames cuts in staffing for fire death

The Los Angeles County Fire Department, whose staffing on its engines and trucks is similar to the city department's assigns staff assistants to fires, said Inspector Henry Rodriguez.

"They help coordinate what we do at fires and how we respond," Rodriguez said.

Fire Commission President Michael Yamaki said the death underscores the demands being placed on the Fire Department.

"We have to wait for the direct cause to come out from the investigation, but I think it's obvious the more people you have on a fire the safer you are," Yamaki said.

"We are asking an awful lot of firefighters--from El Nino to swift-water rescues to brush fires. They're like an insurance policy.When you don't use it, you think it's a waste, but when you need it, you want it there."

Yamaki said he will be using his job as commission president to make the case to the City Council for adequate funding.

"You look at what we are asked to do now, and it's so much more," Yamaki said. "Look at the growth we had in the hillsides from El Nino and you know there will be brush fires and we are now working with fewer inspectors."

In the past five years, the department's budget has grown from $249.6 million to $289 million. At the same time, its staffing dropped from 3,542 in 1993 to 3,345 this year.

Councilman Mike Feuer, who sits on the Budget and Finance and Public Safety committees with the most authority over the LAFD said he was awaiting a full report on Dupee's death.

"I have been concerned for some time whether we have given short shrift to the Fire Department," Feuer said. "If we are going to ask them to do a certain job, we have to make sure they have the funding."

In the line of duty
But Buzzell said he believes the evidence is in.

"The day before he died, Joe Dupee saved a guys life--a captain who got disoriented and Joe went in and saved his life," Buzzell said. "No one has talked about that."

"I told the City Council. I told the Fire Commission. We knew if they kept making cuts someone would die. It's time for these people to stop playing their silly games when people's lives are on the lines."

Funeral services for Dupee are planned for Saturday at at time and place to be determined.

For those wishing to make donations, money can be sent to the Dupee Children's Fund, in care of the Los Angeles Firemen's Credit Union, P.O.Box 60890, Los Angeles, CA 90060-0890. Messages of condolence can be sent to the Los Angeles Firemans Relief Association, 2900 W. Temple St. Los Angeles, CA 90026.

    Daily News
    March 15, 1998

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