Diagnosis: Fire safety plan’s hot

A new pilot fire safety inspection program, currently being used on the set of CBS’ “Diagnosis: Murder,” may soon lead to lower location filming costs for the entire industry within the city of L.A.

The arrangement with “Diagnosis: Murder” is innovative in the sense that it allows filming within a vacant hospital without a full-time fire inspector on hand. Instead, the crew has been given a series of guidelines and the set is open to weekly spot checks by fire officials.

The savings are proving to be substantial, since a full-time fire inspector is paid $48 an hour, making that person the highest paid below-the-line member there. In comparison, union members such as makeup artists or construction coordinators make anywhere from $30-$35 per hour.

If a crew is able to get a retired fire inspector, the rate drops to $26 per hour, which still puts them in the top percent of paid personnel.

Nonetheless, the costs can become significant over several weeks of shooting, especially for TV production, and has been one of many reasons cited to explain why production is leaving the state.

In the case of “Diagnosis: Murder,” the production company actually moved the show to Denver. Yet an aggressive stance by the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees to offer a lower-cost union contract, along with the agreement by fire officials to waive the presence of an on-set inspector, provided enough incentive for the show to come back to Los Angeles.

“We always wanted to shoot in L.A. and the new IA contract made it more feasible,” said the show’s producer, Barry Steinberg. “And not having a full-time fire inspector has further helped our cost situation.”

Steinberg said that out of every seven days of shooting, two to three days are done within a shuttered hospital. The city’s fire officials have historically mandated that a fire inspector be on hand at all times during most shooting indoors.

In addition, fire inspectors also have had to be on hand for shoots within public buildings more than five stories tall, in residences when crews are larger than 50 people and when any pyrotechnic events are being employed.

Yet the rules have been a longstanding sticking point within the industry, which is looking for ways to cut its costs. Steinberg and other people within the industry maintain that there are few other major cities within the U.S. that have such strict or costly filming regulations.

“We want to make sure we’re safe and we do stress safety,” Steinberg said. “But it had just become so pro-forma to have an inspector present.”

Now it appears that the city and the fire department may be close to reaching a compromise on lowering those inspection costs, which would mean offering alternatives to having inspectors on-set unless they were deemed absolutely necessary.

Cody Cluff, assistant deputy mayor for entertainment industry affairs, would not comment on the negotiations, other than to say that it looks like both sides are approximately 60-90 days from reaching an agreement.

“We’re trying to make sure L.A. is competitive with other cities while still preserving the public safety,” Cluff said.

With some pressure from the industry and Mayor Richard Riordan’s pro-filming stance within City Hall, industry sources say there will soon be a joint survey of fire inspection practices of major competing cities in the U.S. to see if there’s truth in the industry’s argument that they don’t face similar costs elsewhere.

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