Red-flag confusion

Red-flag confusion

6 December 2007

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USA — L.A.’s emergency parking restrictions are meant to aid firefighters, but they’ve mostly created bewilderment among hillside and canyon residents.

To the millions of you who live in the flats of Los Angeles, it must sound like a Wal-Mart blowout sale, or some hoary commie festival: It’s red-flag day!

But to the hundreds of thousands living up in the city’s hillsides and down in the canyons, a red-flag day is like seeing the green flag at NASCAR: Start your engines — and move your car.

Move it where? Anywhere but on the sinuous, narrow streets that are charming until a fire engine tries to lumber up them.

This doesn’t happen in wide-open subdivisions with streets so broad that Ben-Hur could double-park chariots in front of his place. But for the miles of streets in neighborhoods built before talkies came along, more suited to little Mary Pickford than big ol’ Arnold Schwarzenegger, there are plenty of places where firetrucks can’t navigate even if cars park on just one side of the road. So, when the city decrees it, if you’re parked in those places, you have to move. You have to park a few dozen yards or a mile or two away, lock the car and climb the hill back home.

If you live in one of these zones, what’s even worse than hearing that it’s red-flag day is not hearing that it’s red-flag day. The city puts $45 tickets on cars still parked in red-flag areas on red-flag days (400 during the October fires), or it tows them away (nearly 100 in the same fires).

The red-flag law kicked in two years ago, and the city is still working out the kinks. How are people to know when to move their cars? Local fire stations hoist red flags up the flagpoles — picturesque, but as a communications tool, a bit medieval.

And what if you’re at work, out of town or out of reach of radio or TV when the red flags go up? The fire department has a telephone or e-mail notification system — — but it’s hardly foolproof.

Ruth Sherman in Mount Washington got several official red-flag alert e-mails just fine. But the day after Thanksgiving, she didn’t get an e-mail — she got a ticket, as did some of her neighbors. (A city Fire Department spokesman, Brian Humphrey, told me that spam filters bounce back “thousands” of the Fire Department’s e-mails. But as Sherman says, she had already received other e-mails just fine.)

Inconsistent enforcement doesn’t help make the message stick. Some 5,000 red-flag signs mark more than 100 miles of roads. A Los Feliz man complained that on a red-flag Saturday, parked cars in his neighborhood were towed away — and the next day, a red-flag Sunday, newly parked cars were not even ticketed.

No wonder some people suspect the red-flag system is a cash-cow scam. No wonder some people are knocking down red-flag signs, hiding them in the brush, spray painting them with obscenities.

You subdivision dwellers must wonder, why not just garage all these cars? Silent-movie-era homes often have no garages, and some owners of newer houses have converted their garages — in some cases illegally — into offices or studio apartments, and now they park on the street too.

What confuses the matter further is that in the city of L.A., “red flag” means “fire hazard, move your car,” but elsewhere — in much of L.A. County — it just means “fire hazard.”

It’s time to give the red-flag plan a major, two-year tuneup. I polled a few City Council members — Jose Huizar, Tom LaBonge, Jack Weiss — who represent hillside neighborhoods, and they agreed that moving parked cars is crucial to firefighting, but the system needs more consistency, credibility and flexibility.

Huizar wants the city to open lots at parks and recreation sites for red-flag cars and to suspend metered and time-limit street parking on red-flag days.

The city requires garages for new homes; can’t it require homeowners to use them as garages? LaBonge would be happy if people cleaned out their garages, donated the stuff to charity and pulled the car in.

With L.A.’s microclimates, a red-flag day in Woodland Hills may not be one in Echo Park. Huizar and Councilman Ed Reyes hope to set up a six-zone system to target red-flag neighborhoods more precisely.

A Hummer-chassis pumper fire engine is smaller than a hook-and-ladder truck. The city has a couple from 1995 but doesn’t use them much. It also has 14 smaller “gush trucks” that can carry pumper equipment into the hills past parked cars. Maybe it’s time to reconsider a nimbler, more flexible “strike force” for hillside firefighting — especially when a single hook-and-ladder truck might block the way for other fire equipment

The 800-pound elephant in this room is the way the city has, over the decades, handed out building permits and variances like Halloween candy, giving us overbuilt neighborhoods even in fire zones. But that’s a column for another time — maybe next Halloween.

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