The Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to address workplace trauma among county firefighters and provide more behavioral and mental health support, while highlighting the need for new hires in an understaffed department.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger recommended programs to better serve first responders and called on fire Chief Daryl Osby to deliver on promises to improve working conditions.
“The tragic events of June 1, 2021, really hit me hard, and I think it took a toll not only on my district but on all firefighters across L.A. County and across the state,” Barger said. “The selfless efforts of our first responders takes an emotional and mental toll not only on those putting themselves on the front line, but also on their families.”
She was referring to a shooting inside the agency’s Station 81 in Agua Dulce, in which firefighter Tory Carlon was fatally wounded and Capt. Arnoldo Sandoval was also seriously injured by an off-duty colleague. After the shooting, Jonathan Patrick Tatone drove to his home in Acton about 10 miles from the station and set fire to the residence. The firefighter was later found dead in his backyard pool of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Authorities said there had been a running dispute between Carlon and Tatone, possibly over the management of the Agua Dulce station. It was unclear, however, exactly what prompted the shooting.
Barger said she was committed to working alongside the department, labor leaders and other county partners to get help for firefighters, who are operating under the strain of too many shifts and being separated from their families due to COVID restrictions, “often going weeks without rest.”
Firefighters are burdened in part because the department is understaffed, so that off-duty personnel are recalled into service again and again, she said. The motion calls on the department to reduce recalls due to vacancies by at least 50% by March 1, 2022.
Barger said she also was counting on Osby to recognize the need to allow families to visit firefighters during station mealtimes and suggested dropping some online training, among other changes. She said she didn’t believe it was the board’s role to manage these changes via motion, but promised to continue to push for changes.
“On my watch, I’m not going to have something like this happen again,” Barger said.
Dave Gillotte, a fire captain and president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1014, spoke to the board “on behalf of every person who is part of the L.A. County fire family,” which he said “was rocked to its core” by the events of June 1.
“As a result, a light is shining once again on firefighter behavioral health issues and some glaring working conditions items that need not only action, but frankly, Board of Supervisors partnership, oversight and accountability,” Gillotte said. “Leadership accountability and leadership change must accompany any and all work on the items listed.”
The union leader said he had spoken candidly with Osby about “the disconnect between the business admin and the … rank-and-file firefighters.”
He said he would reach out to board members individually on specifics, and Barger’s motion includes a call to streamline administrative operations.
Other suggestions include revamping the department’s peer support counseling program and reassessing the grievance process so that everyone feels free to speak out, in addition to providing more mental health visits for employees and their families.
The question remains how the department will pay for more firefighters and new programs. In March of last year, county residents voted down a 6% parcel tax to pay for more county firefighters and upgrade fire equipment. The measure was backed by a slight majority of voters, but it required a two-thirds vote for approval.
When asking for the tax to be put to a ballot, Osby told the board it was the first time the department had asked for additional dollars in more than 23 years, despite the demands of fighting larger and more dangerous wildfires in recent years.
A 2018 assessment by the county’s CEO concluded that the department needed $1.4 billion to upgrade and replace fire engines and rescue vehicles — some more than 20 years old — and to modernize its technology.