Spotlight Story

Time to grin and bear it for CEO

September 25, 2014

Two bear cubs scamper across L.A. County CEO Bill Fujioka's Bradbury backyard. Photo/Darlene Kuba

This is the story of Bill and the three bears.

Last Sunday afternoon, the county’s chief executive officer was pursing his usual weekend pasttime—terracing his sprawling, hilly backyard with bricks—9,000 of them , so far—when his wife bolted out of the house. She announced that three sheriff patrol cars were blocking the driveway and that officials from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife were there, too.

Why the commotion? A mother bear and two cubs had shimmied up an oak tree in front of Fujioka’s house in the tiny city of Bradbury, nestled at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains near Monrovia. They’d been spotted on a busy street in the area and were being guided back towards the mountains by authorities when the parched and hungry animals decided to hole up at Fujioka’s place.

“Holy smokes,” Fujioka exclaimed as he saw for himself what was unfolding out front.

Wildlife officials told Fujioka that because of the severity of the drought, the bears had wandered from the mountains looking for food and water. “It was sad,” Fujioka said. “The mother’s fur looked bad and the cubs looked malnourished.”

The CEO does a man-in-the-neighborhood interview, with his name misspelled.

At one point, Fujioka said, he started walking towards the tree when the mama bear “started hitting the branches.”

“Back up!” a wildlife official told Fujioka. “She’s warning you. If you keep going, she’ll come down that tree and charge you.”

After more than an hour, the bears did climb down but quickly jumped Fujioka’s fence and high-tailed it into another tree, a birch that was even closer to the house. “From my bedroom window,” the CEO recalled, “I could look at the bear eyeball-to-eyeball.”

By now, the news crews had arrived, hoping for footage of the bears’ descent.

As they waited, a reporter for KABC-TV interviewed Fujioka, who admittedly was “as filthy as could be” from his backyard brick work.

Usually when he makes the news, Fujioka is seen unveiling the county’s budget or taking part in other official business. This time, his name was misspelled as “Fugioka” and there was no mention of his position with the county. He was just another neighborhood man in the news. And that neighborhood is no stranger to attracting media attention for its occasional bear visitors. A few years ago, one made headlines for taking a dip in a resident’s hot tub.

On Sunday, in the end, the bears waited out almost everyone—the deputies, the fish and wildlife people, even the news hounds. Everyone except Fujioka and his wife, Darlene Kuba. After more than two hours in the branches, at about 4 p.m. the trio inched down and literally hit the bricks, ambling across Fujioka’s prized, terraced backyard and then back into the hills—leaving Darlene as the lone chronicler of the moment. Here are some of her pictures of the bears on the lam:

On Bill's bricks...

In the birch tree...

And Mama Bear on the wall.

Trouble at sea

September 18, 2014

Lifeguards are having one of their busiest seasons ever as throngs of beachgoers take to the water.

A punishing heat wave sent thousands of people fleeing to the beach this week, but many who tried to cool off in the ocean found themselves in hot water instead.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Lifeguard Division saved more than 1,000 swimmers and surfers swept up by rip currents and other hazards over a five-day period when temperatures peaked at 107 degrees in the San Fernando Valley.

This brought the lifeguards’ total number of rescues up to about 12,000 since January. That’s their third highest tally ever in a single year — with three months still remaining in 2014.

Acting Chief Lifeguard Steve Moseley attributes the spike to a rare confluence of factors: A surge in beach attendance driven by extended periods of unseasonably hot weather, more frequent occurrences of high surf and a warmer ocean.

“All of these contributing factors have combined to create one of the busiest years in recent memory for the Lifeguard Division,” Moseley said.

To date, beach attendance has hit 61 million — well past the 20-year average of 54 million and on pace to exceed last year’s 71 million.

“It’s been so hot inland that everybody’s coming to the beach, even on a Tuesday or a Wednesday,” said Ocean Lifeguard Specialist A.J. Lester. “And because ocean temperatures are warmer, everybody’s staying in the water all day long.” (Tips on staying safe on the beach are here.)

Jet Propulsion Laboratory climatologist and oceanographer Bill Patzert said swimmers and surfers have been particularly vulnerable to being swept away by rip currents, and falling into deep grooves on the ocean floor.

He explained several hurricanes and tropical storms spawned by El Nino conditions in the equatorial Pacific scored the ocean floor, leaving uneven contours.

“The county’s south-facing beaches have been hit with big waves, almost week after week,” Patzert said. “Hurricane Norbert is breaking up, but we have yet another one forming now.

“Because these tend to change the configuration of the ocean bottom,” he added, “people very easily can get into water over their heads in these rip currents.”

Lester said the county employs 200 full-time and 700 part-time lifeguards and has “needed every one of them.” He himself rescued 18 people in a single day last spring, including a pair of boogie-boarding teenagers swept away by rip currents.

“The sister was screaming blood-curdling screams because her brother had fallen off his board and, basically, he was drowning,” Lester said. “I wrapped them around my rescue can but a wave slammed us down to the bottom, and when we got back to the surface, we were all spitting up water.”

Moments after he brought the siblings ashore, he had to dive back in for yet another double rescue. “Then I returned to my tower and parked my truck, but before I could even dry off, we had to pull more people out,” Lester said.

“It’s gotten to the point sometimes when we’re going from one rescue to the next,” Lester said. Still, he added, “There’s nothing more rewarding than completing a rescue, coming back to the beach, and watching those kids run back to their parents, and they’re all hugging each other, and thanking us.”

Section Chief Chris Linkletter said lifeguards also have racked up 1 million “preventions.”

“This means we have prevented that number of people from either becoming rescues or getting into a hazardous situation,” she said.

Amid all the rescues, however, there also have been mishaps.

On Monday, a lifeguard driving a pickup truck back to his tower accidentally ran over a sunbather, who survived but sustained fractures and lacerations to her internal organs.

It was the second such accident this year. In May, another sunbather was hit by a county beach maintenance vehicle.

More than 1,000 swimmers have been rescued in the past five days alone. Photo/KTLA

Posted 9/18/14

A peak accomplishment

September 11, 2014

Milt McAuley's love of the Santa Monica Mountains may be returned with a peak named in his honor.

Milt McAuley’s fingerprints are all over the Santa Monica Mountains. Soon, his name could be on one of the range’s most visible peaks.

Acting on a motion by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to write the United States Board of Geographic Names in support of changing the name of Peak 2049 to “McAuley Peak.”

The motion is the latest boost to a campaign championed during the past several years by West Hills resident and avid hiker Coby King, who had long felt a special connection to McAuley. Before venturing onto a new trail, King would turn to McAuley’s landmark guidebook, Hiking Trails of the Santa Monica Mountains.

“Most hiking guides are really straightforward,” King said. “But his guidebook, you could hear his voice coming through in every hiking description. You could tell that the guy had a personality and that he loved the mountains.”

McAuley led group hikes into his 80s.

McAuley also authored and self-published other reference materials on the mountains, including a wildflower guide and a guide to the popular Backbone Trail, which transects the range from East to West and which he helped plot. McAuley’s books and advocacy for public acquisition of land in the Santa Monica Mountains drew scores of people to the area and generated a groundswell of support to protect the mountains from development.

Although King never met the conservationist, he said he did hike “just about every peak” in McAuley’s book. When the author died in 2008, King was moved to action.

“I felt like he deserved some kind of recognition for all that he had committed to the mountains,” King said. Out of all the hikes to peaks in his guidebook, “2049 was the only one that didn’t already have a name.”

The peak is situated right next to the Backbone Trail and is crested by a large sandstone rock visible for miles. King said the peak is an appropriate monument to a man whose work still looms over the mountains. Since applications to name geographic landmarks can’t be filed until five years after the person’s death, King, who serves as chairman of the Valley Industry & Commerce Association, used his government expertise to start building a case.

After securing the blessing of the McAuley family, he garnered support from elected officials and worked with environmental groups like the Sierra Club, which began calling the site McAuley Peak in their materials.

King is hopeful that the U.S. Board of Geographic Names will quickly approve the application so that the new designation will become official sometime next year. And that’s good news to the many friends and former associates of McAuley, who believe his contributions warrant the honor.

Jim Hasenauer met McAuley in the 1980s when he and some fellow mountain bikers were trying to convince local trail managers to allow them to use the trails. Some of the hikers were resistant, but McAuley—whom Hasenauer described as a gentle giant—was welcoming.

“He felt that people needed to experience the trails, sights, vistas, flora and fauna of the area and then we would appreciate it and die protecting it,” Hasenauer said, adding: “To go on a hike with him was like going to a graduate seminar in mountain ecology.”

Ruth Gerson, who worked with McAuley on the Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council and serves as the organization’s current president, said he was instrumental in naming trails and opening them up for public use. “He was a wealth of knowledge in the mountains,” Gerson said. “There was nobody that disliked him. And he could out-walk anybody—even in his late 70s.”

Bill McAuley, Milt’s son, said he’s never hiked the peak that could soon be named in his dad’s honor. But he certainly intends to hit the trail when, hopefully, McAuley Peak becomes a reality.

“I see the names in the Sierras and they’re all people who had something to do with the mountains,” Bill said. “He really did have a lot of influence.”

Hiker Coby King led the campaign to have Peak 2049 named after McAuley.

Posted 9/11/14

Rhapsody in blue

September 10, 2014

Eloïse Gaillou, at the Smithsonian last month, experiences the Blue Moon firsthand.

It was the kind of discovery that can rock a gem scientist’s world.

Eloïse Gaillou, an associate curator at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, started picking up social media chatter early this year about a 29.6 carat rough diamond found in South Africa.

She hardly imagined that just months later she would be on a team at the Smithsonian Institution conducting scientific tests on the rare diamond—now exquisitely cut to 12 carats and dubbed the Blue Moon for its exceptional color—let alone helping to host the super-stone’s visit to Los Angeles, where it will be on display in the museum’s gem vault from September 13 through January 6.

“We tweeted about it, we blogged about it, never thinking that it would come to us eventually,” Gaillou said.

The Blue Moon will join a collection of 240 colored diamonds called the “Aurora Butterfly of Peace” now on display at the museum.

“Putting those two collections together is really going to be an exceptional thing for the public to see. You won’t be able to see that many colored diamonds again in your life,” Gaillou said. “I’m sure we’re going to blow people’s minds.”

The Blue Moon's color makes it an extreme rarity in the world of gemstones.

The idea for the temporary exhibition was launched, she said, after the owner of the Butterfly of Peace diamonds put her in touch with Cora International, the diamond firm that owns the Blue Moon. Cora International agreed to allow the museum to display the rare stone, whose distinctive color comes from traces of boron within its carbon structure.

It is likely to be the only public display of the diamond before it disappears discreetly into a private collection, Gaillou said.

Gaillou, who grew up in the Brittany region of France, has childhood memories of prospecting for fossils and minerals in local fields and on vacations with her parents in the Alps. As a geologist specializing in gemstones, she focused on sapphires for her master’s degree and opals for her doctorate, but became interested in diamonds when she pursued a diploma in gemology. It was at the Smithsonian, where she did nearly five years of post-doctoral work before joining the county’s Natural History Museum in 2012, that she began to turn her attention to rare pink and blue diamonds—“the ones that you don’t usually have the opportunity to study unless you are in a very special place that owns such diamonds.”

Even without glamorous visitors like the Blue Moon and the Butterfly of Peace passing through, Gaillou said the NHM’s gem collection is “amazing,” second only to the Smithsonian’s.

While she got a thrill from handling the Blue Moon during the scientific tests with her former colleagues at the Smithsonian last month, it’s clear that science—not jewelry—is this curator’s best friend.

She was most wowed by the Blue Moon’s red afterglow—“a good 20 seconds!”—after it was exposed to UV light. That kind of phosphorescence, she said, is usually associated only with the finest blue diamonds, like the Hope and the Wittelsbach-Graff.

“Diamonds, they’re pretty, don’t get me wrong. But from a scientific point of view, I just love studying diamonds. They give us a clue not only about the deep earth, but also the evolution of the earth from about 3 billion years ago until now,” she said. “You would be done looking at a diamond in about five minutes if you were just looking at its aesthetics. But from the scientific point of view, I have been working on them for over seven years now.”

Still, like a pastry chef who steers clear of macarons, Gaillou said she doesn’t indulge much in sparkling bijoux in her private life.

“I see so many beautiful things that I don’t even buy jewelry myself, or not much. I think it has probably killed it for me,” she laughed.

But she does get a charge out of walking through the museum’s gem exhibits on the way to her office each day, and overhearing the oohs and aahs from visitors.

She’s expecting to get quite an earful in the months ahead. Even though she has studied more than 100 diamonds, including legendary stones like the Hope, the Wittelsbach-Graff and the Blue Heart, she considers the Blue Moon exceptional.

“You never get tired of looking at big gems like that,” said Gaillou, 34. “There’s just something about this color. It’s something that you will never forget.”

“Some gemstones are just dead, and some gemstones are just alive. And definitely this one is alive. You see it. It’s just aglow. The cut is wonderful, the fire is amazing. After that, as to the personality of the Blue Moon, I think that everybody will have a different answer. You just have to come and see the diamond by yourself and make up your mind on that.”

Posted 9/4/14

Staging Grand Park’s biggest act yet

August 28, 2014

With major names like Kanye West and John Mayer on tap, Grand Park is in the spotlight.

The pink furniture is being packed off to storage. The splash pad is disappearing under a protective mat.  The street closure notices have been circulating for a week and a security detail of more than 1,000 has been assembled.

With Grand Park scheduled to welcome its biggest crowd yet this Labor Day weekend, local authorities have mustered a similarly impressive response to gear up for Budweiser Made In America, the two-day downtown music festival being curated by Jay Z and promoted by Live Nation.

“There are a lot of headline acts and they’re expecting more than 30,000 people each day,” explained Christine Frias, a program manager in the county CEO’s office who is coordinating the departments involved in the deployment.

“I think, with the help of Grand Park, the Sheriff’s Department and all the collaboration that’s going on, this event will be successful. “

Still, she notes, “you have to take extra precautions when there’s going to be alcohol.”

Preparations for the August 30-31 festival have been the talk of the town since April, when Jay Z and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that the bicoastal music festival would be held this year in downtown’s most popular new park.

Though Grand Park has seen some grand crowds—about 20,000 gathered there for its first New Year’s Eve bash, for instance—they have mostly been free to the public and explicitly family friendly.

And peaceful: Frias said the more than 10,000 people who gathered there for July 4 music and fireworks were so well behaved that none of the park’s plants or furnishings had to be replaced.

But the Budweiser MIA concert is the first attempt to use the 12-acre space as a venue for a major ticketed rock concert, and—though neither Jay Z nor his superstar wife, Beyoncé are among the acts on the lineup—this event is expected to be a doozy, with Kanye West, John Mayer and other big names on the roster. More than 30 bands are expected to play over the festival’s two days.

Three stages, an amusement park ride and an exhibition skate park will dot the lawns between City Hall and the Music Center, and 40 to 50 food trucks will ring the venue. And while all ages will be welcomed, the festival site will allow beer drinking at more than a half-dozen public and VIP beer gardens.

“It’s going to be a couple of long hot days, and hopefully people will mostly consume water, but we are concerned about alcohol consumption,” said Los Angeles Sheriff’s Capt. Chuck Stringham.

About 270 sheriff’s deputies and a similar number of Los Angeles police are expected to be deployed on each day of the festival, along with several dozen Music Center security officers and an unknown number of undercover officers who will be enforcing laws against underage drinking for the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Another 370 private licensed security guards are expected to be on hand at the behest of the acts themselves and the concert promoter, according to a spokeswoman from Garcetti’s office. The Sheriff’s Department will handle security within the event perimeter and LAPD will be in charge outside.

Alcohol will be permitted only in the beer gardens, and patrons will be limited to two beers at a time and required to produce valid photo I.D.s, he said, adding that attendees will not be allowed to exit and re-enter the venue.

Frias said the park itself will be braced for the masses. Grand Park is owned by the county and operated by the Music Center, although the surrounding streets are mostly the jurisdiction of the City of Los Angeles.  Live Nation is paying $500,000 to the city to cover its costs and $600,000 to the Music Center to cover park rental and county services.

But the promoters must pay extra for any damage, and more than 300 workers per day have been on the site this week, spending an average of 15 hours a day to assemble about 100 tractor trailers’ worth of equipment, according to a spokesman for Live Nation.

Videographers have been filming the lush grounds all week, she said, to establish the park’s pre-festival condition, and the park’s signature hot pink furniture has been stored for safekeeping.

Vulnerable landscaping is being cordoned off with temporary fencing. And, she said, the splash pad around the Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain also is getting a custom buffer to protect it from a stage that is being installed over it for the festival deejays.

“The splash pad will be turned off and dried, and then they’re putting a 4- to 5-inch rubberized mat on it to cover it and distribute the weight of the equipment on top of it,” said Frias.

Outside the Lines, the construction firm that helped build the splash pad, will oversee the construction to ensure that none of the festival preparations damages the water feature or surrounding tile and LED lights, she said.

Perhaps the trickiest set of preparations is for festival traffic. Already, various downtown streets have been closed this week for delivery of production equipment and stages. (Most of the work has gone on overnight).

Though ticket sales are not as high as the initial daily estimates of 50,000, the crowds are still expected to set records for Grand Park, and organizers have spent months reassuring downtown residents and business owners that the area won’t be inundated.

“But we’ve had major closures in the downtown area before—we know how to do this,” said Aram Sahakian, who oversees special traffic operations for the city Department of Transportation.

On the Fourth of July, for instance, he noted, thousands cars were swiftly ushered in and out of downtown parking structures by traffic control officers who patrolled the park area on foot and on Segways.

“And how about Fiesta Broadway? That used to bring in hundreds of thousands of people,” Sahakian said.

Organizers are urging concertgoers to take public transportation, Sahakian said, and between 7,000 and 10,000 are expected to ride mass transit into the venue. But the Civic Center station—which opens directly into Grand Park—will be closed so that riders can’t bypass the ticket-takers, and to accommodate safety concerns.

Though the Civic Center station does have a second entrance outside the perimeter of the festival, event organizers and law enforcement insisted that the whole station be closed because the bottleneck that would have resulted from channeling thousands of riders at one time into one exit might have overcrowded the platform and created a safety hazard, said Metro spokesman Marc Littman.

So subway riders are being urged to get off at Pershing Square or Union Station and walk the few blocks to the venue.

Meanwhile, Sahakian said, those who drive will be directed to downtown parking garages, though some may have to park as far from the venue as Staples Center or Dodger Stadium, and ride in on shuttles. Extra traffic engineers and traffic control officers will be on hand to help channel traffic toward open parking structures, he said.

“Yes, this is a first time thing for the park, but we’re prepared,” he said. “Hey, we moved the Space Shuttle, right?”

Budweiser Made in America curator Jay Z performing earlier this year with event headliner Kanye West.

Posted 8/28/14

Our new social club—the L.A. River

August 13, 2014

Once banned from most of the L.A. River, kayakers are now a regular summer sight. Photo/StreetsblogLA

Most Angelenos know that the Los Angeles River is making a comeback. Still, the hipsters hawking free breakfast on its banks were a surprise.

Waving their arms and proffering scrambled egg sandwiches and muffins they’d cooked on a camp stove, the group of about a dozen young people were on the bike path near Rattlesnake Park on Saturday morning, flagging down cyclists for no apparent reason beyond community building.

“They said they had done it before, and had just decided to do it again,” said one passing cyclist, a 24-year-old from Eagle Rock who’s been riding along the river near Griffith Park for years. “It seemed like they were just, like, ‘Let’s just get together and do something nice.’”

Gathering at the river to do something nice has become a trend this summer, as momentum has built around the restoration and revitalization of L.A.’s long-suffering namesake waterway.

With scores of projects already complete and a $1 billion Army Corps of Engineers plan expected to dramatically improve an 11-mile stretch between downtown and Griffith Park, a nascent but notable scene has taken hold along the once-maligned L.A. River, particularly where it has been spruced up with pocket parks, hiking trails and bikeways.

This summer, for instance, kayaking tours are being offered in public recreation areas in the Sepulveda Basin and in Elysian Valley; later this month, about 100 stand-up-paddlers and rowers will gather in the Glendale Narrows for a first-ever L.A. River Boat Race.

The Los Angeles River Corp. is offering outdoor bike-in movies along the riverbanks later this month and has its second annual Greenway 2020 10k race scheduled for early November. Meanwhile, the Elysian Valley Arts Collective will host its annual Frogtown Art Walk again next month by the river. Nearby, Elysian, an underground restaurant that materialized two years ago on the river near Atwater Village, will be up and running, legally and officially.

Along the L.A. River's concrete banks, The Frog spot offers food, concerts and more. Photo/Franklin Avenue Blog

Elysian is also the home of Clockshop, a non-profit arts and cultural organization, and the site for more than a few weddings during the past year. And speaking of art, be on the lookout for the L.A. Mud People, a performance art group that frequents the river both as a medium and a backdrop.

“It’s really kind of miraculous,” marveled Lewis MacAdams, president of Friends of the L.A. River, which has itself drawn thousands of passersby over the past six weeks by staging free weekend concerts at The Frog Spot, an informal venue it set up this summer on Benedict Street along the Elysian Valley bike path.

“We’ve been surprised at how many people have showed up—probably 500 or so every Saturday and Sunday,” said MacAdams, adding that FOLAR will also be sponsoring a catch-and-release fishing event next month. “People are getting interested, and looking for community.”

MacAdams sees the interest as an outgrowth of the long political fight to restore the river, which was paved in the 1930s in an attempt to tame periodic but lethal floods. Nearly 4,000 people participated this year in FOLAR’s long-running annual river cleanup, he said—a record turnout—and each cleanup has helped spread the news of the river’s revitalization and potential.

So far, MacAdams said, most of the community activities have centered around FOLAR and the Elysian Valley arts community near Frogtown.  “But a lot of it also is the bicycle population,” he said. “There are more bicyclists than we imagined, and they keep coming back.”

Julia Meltzer, executive director of Clockshop and the wife of David Thorne, who runs Elysian restaurant, agreed that the riverfront has become exponentially more active.

“There’s a lot more recreation and sporting,” she said, acknowledging that the various improvements, from friendlier landscaping to paved bikeways, have created occasional conflicts among walkers, cyclists, locals and other constituencies.

Nonetheless, a first-ever, free community campout along the river that Meltzer said she helped organize over Memorial Day weekend—along with California State Parks, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, the Natural History Museum and others—was fully booked within an hour of its announcement.

“I think it’s the big buzz, and the opportunity to come down to the river’s edge legally now,” said MRCA Chief Ranger Fernando Gomez, adding that some 200 campers showed up on Memorial Day and that hundreds more have shown up this summer for MRCA river programs, ranging from free community paddles to evening weenie roasts in Marsh Park.

“It used to be that people weren’t allowed in the river without a special use permit—it wasn’t meant for recreation,” Gomez said. “People would look at the river and think it was disgusting.

“But now, they can go down in, say, a kayak, and they see that the water is actually pretty clean, and there’s a heron right over there taking off with a fish in its mouth. They see that it’s not just all about concrete anymore,” Gomez said. “It’s a river—a real live river—now and people want to be part of it.”

A first-ever L.A. River campout over Memorial Day weekend was fully booked in an hour.

Posted 8/6/14

Cracking the ER “Code”

August 13, 2014

The acclaimed Code Black captures the intensity and complexities of ER medicine at County-USC.

In the beginning, the idea was simply to produce some archival footage—a project pitched by a young medical student to document life-saving efforts unfolding amid the controlled chaos of the emergency room at Los Angeles County’s old General Hospital.

It was there, on the edge of downtown, that the concept of emergency medicine was born in 1971 and, in some respects, had remained the same in theory and practice throughout the ensuing decades.

Despite medical modernizations that had become the norm at most hospitals, the emergency crew at the renamed Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center still operated more like a battlefield MASH unit. Crowds of doctors and nurses swirled around patients suffering the most catastrophic of injuries. Side by bloody side, the stricken were packed into a cramped trauma bay in the ER called “C-booth,” with barely a curtain between them.

But in 2008, all that was about to change, and first-year resident Ryan McGarry, who also had a keen interest in filmmaking, wanted to capture the era before it was gone. Because of earthquake damage to the old county hospital, the emergency department was moving next door to a new state-of-the-art facility that would rocket the doctors into 21st century medicine, complete with its emphasis on patient privacy and layers of paperwork.

Although initially modest in scope, McGarry’s ambitions for the project soared with the support of top Los Angeles County officials and the help of a producing team that included USC Distinguished Professor Mark Jonathan Harris, who has won three Academy Awards for documentaries.

Director/Writer Ryan McGarry, an ER physician.

McGarry’s film, Code Black, opened nationwide in June and has become a critical success, a gripping and graphic look at the shifting world of emergency medicine for the destitute and working poor who rely on public hospitals, such as County-USC, for their care. The term Code Black refers to the hospital’s designation for the highest level of emergency room crowding. Among other honors, the film won the Jury Award for best documentary at the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival.

Focusing on a cadre of idealistic young residents, including himself, McGarry explores the challenging new realities for the next generation of emergency room physicians as they remain committed to maintaining a personal connection with patients while confronting the escalating regulatory demands and settings that emphasize patient privacy.

Dr. Sean Henderson, chairman of the hospital’s emergency department, says his 21-year-old daughter saw the documentary at a film festival in Santa Barbara and was so inspired that she changed her major.

“She decided to become a physician’s assistant because of that movie,” he said.

“Often, doctors are portrayed as overpaid snobs who don’t really care,” he continued the other day, sipping a caffeine-free Coke in his office in the old county hospital. “But I think you’ll see in this movie that this is not always the case. There are people doing things because they really care about the people they serve.”

Still, Henderson said he has some personal reservations about the film—a project he inherited from his predecessor, Edward Newton—and isn’t sure he would have green-lighted it himself.

“I’ve never believed in cameras in the hospital,” he explained. “The fact that you’re in an emergency room with an unplanned, unscheduled, unanticipated event—stressed, waiting, probably less informed than you’d like to be—I think that’s a very vulnerable place to be.”

That said, Henderson praised the filmmaker for getting two sets of consents from patients whose emergency room visits are shown in the film—everyone from a drunken man belting out a romantic ballad in the waiting room to the family of a patient whom doctors unsuccessfully fought to save as they cut into his chest to keep his heart beating.

Henderson, who became department chair in 2012, also appears in the film, but mostly to defend a prominently featured action he imposed in the face of a severe nursing shortage. In a dramatic segment of the documentary, he shut down an area of the new emergency department, creating a monumental patient backlog, to make the point “that we couldn’t continue to care for all these people with inadequate resources.”

“I caused the crisis and I had to defend the crisis. I was the villain,” he said, and then offered a fuller explanation of his actions than he did in the film.

He said that in the past, before Health Services Director Mitchell Katz’s arrival in 2011, “the way you got attention in the county system was to create a crisis. It wasn’t just me. It was throughout the system…If you have a crisis, resources are pulled from someone who’s not having a crisis to take care of your crisis. And so, without permission from the school [USC] or the county, I created a crisis knowing full well that it would create a pushback downtown that would allow them to hear my pleas that heretofore had gone ignored.

“It was manipulative, it was sneaky, and mea maxima culpa. But it worked,” he said, noting that more funding was soon made available for the desperately needed nurses.

Another top L.A. County emergency department official, Dr. Erin Wilkes, said she’s seen her good friend McGarry’s film more than a dozen times in various stages along the way. The two were residents together, beginning in the old hospital’s emergency department. Today, she’s the director of Emergency Medicine Systems Innovation & Quality.

Wilkes said she helped organize various Code Black screenings for county officials, including the Health Services executive team. The feedback was mostly positive, she said, although “there were a lot of questions about what the consent process was like.” Wilkes said McGarry obtained his first consents at the hospital and then got a second round of permissions after showing people the actual footage he wanted to use.

Wilkes said she’d now like to build on Code Black’s positive buzz by holding a panel discussion event at USC that would include McGarry, now an assistant professor of emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical College.

In a recent interview with the emergency medicine publication ACEPNow, McGarry talked about the demands of simultaneously pursuing his residency and filmmaking. “It was three years of no vacation,” he said. But he said he had no regrets.

“One thing that I feel very lucky to have experienced,” he said, “is nonmedical people sitting through some pretty tough stuff in cases we show. And at the end of the film people give us a standing ovation. I wish I could share that with every physician, nurse and X-ray tech who leaves a really tough shift.”

C-booth at the old L.A. County hospital operated more like a MASH unit than a modern ER.

Posted 7/17/14

A park vote to keep the green flowing

August 6, 2014

The restored Griffith Observatory is one of the most visible projects funded by Proposition A.

From the Malibu Pier to trails running through the Santa Monica Mountains, from a dog park in La Crescenta to a skate park in Downey, two L.A. County park measures have generated nearly $1 billion in improvements over the past two decades for some of the region’s best-loved gathering places, great and small.

The measures—Proposition A in 1992 and a follow-up initiative known as “Baby A” in 1996—have helped to fund 1,545 projects across the county including “tot lots,” tree planting, swimming pools, soccer fields, bikeways and fitness gardens, along with facilities for seniors and youth, wildlife habitat projects and graffiti abatement services.

Among the measures’ most broadly visible success stories: a new shell installed at the Hollywood Bowl, a county park, in 2004; the extensive restoration of the Griffith Observatory, which reopened to the public in 2006; and expansion of the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, with amenities including a play area and ball fields. Prop. A funding also has helped transform El Cariso Community Regional Park in Sylmar, which now boasts new features including soccer fields and a 15,000-square-foot community center and gymnasium. And it is allowing kids to make a splash this summer in the new Olympic-sized pool at Belvedere Park in East Los Angeles.

A chocolate Lab has his day at La Crescenta's dog park.

But the flow of green amenities to parks in L.A. County’s unincorporated areas and its 88 cities could be coming to an end, with Prop. A set to expire next June 30. (Its 1996 counterpart will finish in 2019.)

Concerned about derailing a successful program of investing in local parks and recreation facilities, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors decided this week to place on the November ballot a measure that would essentially carry on the 1992 Prop. A for 30 more years, generating a similar $53 million per year.

“We need to do this if we want to keep the momentum going,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who along with Supervisors Don Knabe and Gloria Molina voted to place the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot. “The public has benefitted from this. They like the parks that have been built. They like the recreational opportunities that have been provided. I don’t think they want to see this come to a grinding halt on June 30 of this coming year.”

But Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who joined Mark Ridley-Thomas in opposing the action, said it was too soon to place what he called a “half-baked tax” before the voters, especially since Prop. A ’96 is continuing for several more years and some unspent funds remain in Prop. A coffers.

Russ Guiney, the county’s director of Parks and Recreation, acknowledged that there is a current balance of $154 million in Prop. A funds, but said $20 million of that is committed to upcoming projects. Unless the proposed continuation of Prop. A passes, the remaining funds will be spent down rapidly on park projects and maintenance demands that run around $55 million annually, Guiney said.

The average homeowner currently is assessed $13 a year for Prop. A ’92 and $7 annually for Prop A. ’96, for a total of $20 a year. The measure now heading to the Nov. 4 ballot would replace the Prop. A ’92 assessment with a flat tax of $23 a year per parcel. If passed by the required two-thirds of county voters, that would bring the average homeowner’s total tab for park improvements to $30 per year.

Guiney noted that 64% of voters approved the 1992 measure, and even more—65%—voted in favor of the 1996 proposition.That bodes well, he said, especially since so many projects built with funds from the previous parks measures are now visible and being used enthusiastically by the public.

“I think the voters understand and appreciate this, based on past history,” he said. “We’re optimistic.”

 

Belvedere Park has a new Olympic-sized pool, East L.A.'s first. Photo/Los Angeles Times

Posted 8/6/14

Sky rangers get their day in the sun

July 24, 2014

Ranger Robert Cromwell views a solar eclipse from the Santa Monica Mountains. Photo/NPS

Not many people immediately think of the Santa Monica Mountains as a hotspot for star sightings in L.A. But Ranger Robert Cromwell of the National Park Service has a contrarian view when it comes to glimpsing famous luminaries.

“Meteor showers, the Orion Nebula, Saturn, Jupiter, the Transit of Venus, which only happens once every 110 years—we’ve had some spectacular sightings up here,” says Cromwell, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area’s coordinator of night sky programs.

“It’s always eye-opening to people,” he says. “Here we are, right next to one of the world’s biggest cities and yet you can actually see the Milky Way.”

This, Cromwell says, is partly because preservation of the night sky has become a priority in the mountains, both by the National Park Service and by the county, which has regulated artificial light in rural areas with a Dark Sky Ordinance since 2012. Soon, a sweeping new environmental plan for the Santa Monica Mountains, awaiting final approval by the Board of Supervisors, will protect those starry night views for generations to come.

Cromwell and a small team of park volunteers and rangers have made it their business during the past three years to turn the public on to Los Angeles’ celestial treasures and to the importance of protecting night skies from light pollution.

Cromwell calls his team “The Night Sky Rangers.”  Since 2011, when they threw their first mountaintop stargazing party, astronomy events at the recreation area have become seasonal extravaganzas.  Last year’s Summer Star Festival drew a crowd of 800, and this year’s, scheduled for August 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the park’s Paramount Ranch, is expected to be just as popular, if not more.

More than a dozen telescopes will be trained to night sky attractions, the Santa Monica Mountains Ranger Band will play astronomy-themed rock music, and there will be children’s programs and lectures by local astronomy and physics professors.

The Milky Way galaxy from the Santa Monica Mountains. Photo/Stephen Lee Carr

The emphasis on night sky preservation stems from a National Park Service decision in the late 1990s to formally recognize the night sky as a natural resource. As development encroaches on wilderness across the nation, streetlights and billboards have systematically crowded out starlight. Two-thirds of Americans, by some estimates, are now unable to see the Milky Way from their backyards.

Natural nighttime darkness is important not only to the circadian rhythms of humans but also to many wildlife species, who rely on natural patterns of light and dark for navigation and protection from predators.

Some national parks are renowned for their lack of light pollution. Death Valley National Park, for instance, is home to an assortment of Full Moon Festivals and Mars Fests, and the International Dark Sky Association has designated it the world’s largest “dark sky” park.

Most of the Santa Monica Mountains recreation area, which straddles the Los Angeles-Ventura County line north and west of the city, is too close to L.A. and saturated by city lights to get that kind of a designation, says Cromwell.

“But there are some sites within the mountains that I think have potential,” he says.

The Dark Skies Ordinance, passed two years ago by the county, restricts rural lighting across a designated district that hopscotches from Rowland Hills through the Antelope Valley and the Santa Monica Mountains to the coast. County code enforcement officers say that since the ordinance’s passage, cases have dropped to a handful as rural property owners have become better educated on the issue.

Park officials also have played a role in raising consciousness. Among other things, they’ve weighed in on development proposals, working with the City of Agoura Hills, for instance, to prevent light from a parking lot from encroaching too badly on a nearby wildlife corridor.

The park also has dimmed its own light footprint, hoping to lead by example.

Park spokeswoman Kate Kuykendall says about 65 percent of the park’s lighting is now night-sky-friendly LED, and outdoor fixtures are being switched to point downward instead of toward the sky.

Cromwell, who has been a ranger in the Santa Monica Mountains for five years, says the night sky has fascinated him since his childhood in Moorpark. One of his most vivid memories is when he was about 11 or 12 and surfing Malibu at twilight. He laid back on his board.

“It was one of those clear nights that you don’t always get at the beach, and I remember looking up and seeing the stars and seeing them reflect on the water,” he says of that memorable summer evening. “I was just, like, wow.”

The astronomy festivals grew out of a 2010 Yosemite National Park workshop. The national parks were encouraging night sky programming, Cromwell says, and although astronomy so close to a city seemed a challenge, he and his fellow park workers decided to try.

He, volunteer campground host Tony Valois and Ken Low, another park ranger with expertise in the night sky, have developed relationships with local enthusiasts, who now provide help and equipment. At the upcoming festival, for example, the Ventura County Astronomical Society will provide some of the telescopes, Cal Lutheran University Professor Mike Shaw will offer a family friendly tutorial on stargazing and Hal Jandorf, an astronomy professor at Moorpark College, will lead a constellation tour.

“The experts really make it possible,” Cromwell says. “And when people look out and see the glow from a development or something, they become conscious of how important it is to preserve experiences like this. Because on clear nights, you can see other galaxies sometimes. It’s spectacular.”

This year’s Summer Star Festival is scheduled for August 2 from 7:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. at Paramount Ranch, 2903 Cornell Road, Agoura Hills. In the event of rain, the program will be cancelled. For more information, call 805-370-2301

Last summer's festival drew a crowd of 800. Red cellophane light filters are used to reduce glare. Photo/Mike Shaw

Posted 7/24/14

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