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San Diego Council To Consider Fire Station Study

November 14, 2011 1:27 p.m.

It’s widely known the City of San Diego needs more fire stations. Today the city council will consider adopting a plan to get them built. But there’s no money to actually make it happen.

Related Story: San Diego Council To Consider Fire Station Study


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: The weekend rain may have us thinking less about fire, but it's on the minds of the San Diego City Council. And we'll serve for the R&B soul of San Diego. Is this KPBS Midday Edition. Our stop story on Midday Edition, from fire station brownouts to discussions about adding new stations. It seemed the City of San Diego is moving in the right direction for fire safety. A fire safety consultant says response times in the city are not what they should be. And there's no consensus about paying for any new fire stations. I'd like to welcome my guests, San Diego City Council woman Marti Emerald is here. And good afternoon. Thanks for coming in.
EMERALD: My pleasure.
CAVANAUGH: And KPBS metro reporter, Katie Orr.
ORR: Hi, Maureen
CAVANAUGH: The results of this report were released last year. Tell us what the City Council will be talking about this week
ORR: The City Council is going to be considering this report really just considering whether or not it wants to adopt it as a guideline. As you mention, there isn't a lot of money to make any changes. The report recommends building ten new stations, and adding nine fast response teams, basically 2-person -- two firefighter teams that would cover these other areas. And the top costs a lot of money. The cost of building the stations and acquiring the new equipment would be just under $100†million. And the cost to staff the new stations and those squads would be about $40†million a year. And obviously that's money 2459 city just doesn't have right now.
CAVANAUGH: And it's my recollection that the report didn't say ten new fire stations all over the city. There actually are some places that they designated as under-served
ORR: They found that the city as it grew would build stations in new development areas but then wouldn't
Back and back-fill other areas or hasn't kept up with the development, like in university city, northern university city, that area has exploded. There is a station there, but it's an area that's considered under served by the fire department, and it might benefit from another station, places like that. But again, and also the report found that the topography of San Diego, the canyons, the fact that we don't have a grid system for our streets because of the way the left-hand is here makes it hard to put fire stations strategically around the city
CAVANAUGH: Marti Emerald, last time we were talking about fire stations on this show, we were talking about brownouts, and the impact of the city on having to basically just put some engines and stations in reserve. Basically say that we can't go near them because we don't have enough money right now to make sure that they're in service.
EMERALD: Sure. And browning them out, we saved about $11†million
CAVANAUGH: Has that been lifted though?
EMERALD: Oh, yeah. In the new budget, the FY 12 budget we're operation under now, as of July†1st, those eight engine companies were put back in service. And it was interesting. 5, 6†days later, the big fire in Hillcrest with that old apartment building, and the bulk of the vehicles and crews that came had been browned out just a week before. So our timing was good. Now that they're back in service, wee just back to our regular being short-handed and short on equipment and that sort of thing. That's because of years and of cuts and attrition, and we just haven't kept up. And I think Katy crew an accurate picture. The big pact here of the to beography has changed, the traffic patterns have changed, we don't have roads connecting areas so that we can get vehicles from one place on another quickly. So that's what is now so pressing about getting these fire stations built so that we do have enough in strategic areas of the city to be able to respond within that federal guideline of under five minutes. Right now, we're averaging 5†minutes 15†seconds 55% of the time. And we've accepted that, as, well, that's good. But it's not
EMERALD: Remember that almost 90% of the calls, we talk about fire, and it is fire, but it's fire rescue, and 90% of the calls just about are for medical emergencies
CAVANAUGH: Before we talk any bit more about new fire stations, I want to wrap up this idea about brownouts. Could you tell us -- you said we saved $11†million last year by browning out the fire stations.
EMERALD: Because we weren't paying the overtime for those crews
EMERALD: That cover people who are sick or on vacationing and that sort of thing.
CAVANAUGH: I'm just wondering though, since we did save money, the city was very strapped, how do we get out of that situation, and will we find ourselves in it again?
EMERALD: Looking forward to the next fiscal year, 2014, the mayor's office is telling us we may have about a $30†million budget shortfall, which was better than this year, much western the year before. But still where do we make the cuts? I'm resolved that those cuts do not come out of public safety because that is the NO.†1 core service of government, keeping people safe. But it has to come from somewhere.
ORR: That's the whole debate we went through raft ser. When the sales tax increase was proposed and they said we might have to cut fire and police, then we didn't have to do that, but we made cuts things like libraries. And they cut positions at city hall. So last year, we didn't see the big cuts to public safety. But if we have a deficit again this year, and keep all those cuts in place, because that is how the structural budget deficit will remain solved, that's if we keep these cuts in place. I suppose you could go and cut library hours more, but if you're looking for big cults, that might be where you have to go.
EMERALD: Yeah, this is the root of the deficit that we're dealing with that we really don't have the revenues to cover in expanding cost of providing services for an expanding community
CAVANAUGH: So we don't yet know that we're totally out of the woods when it comes to making cuts to fire services and additional brownouts, perhaps as we see what the deficit may be. But in these talks that you're going to be having this week on the San Diego City Council, Marti Emerald, I know that the city fire chief, Javier Maynard characterizes the discussions about the new fire stations as adopting a roadmap for the future. Is that how you see it?
EMERALD: Absolutely, it's a blue print. Where the mayor's office has a 5-year financial outlook, basically their wish list, this is our 5-year financial outlook for fire rescue. And what we would like to see is the mayor's office -- either this mayor or whoever winds up winning election the next year, to incorporate this into the five-year financial outlook as a spending priority in San Diego. And I believe that if we have the roadmap, and we sathat built into the system, we're going to be more inclined to spend the money invested in public safety. And the first priority that was certified by the City-gate group, and they were terrific. He really knows what our crews are going through day in and out. Is to build out those fire stations. We have to make the investment, then we've got to start paying for some academies to get more people on board, so we've got crews to staff those fire stations. In some of the newer communities we've got fire stations sitting empty except for storage because we don't have the money to run the academies to get people sworn in, to do the training and staff.
CAVANAUGH: When you talk about this tomorrow on the City Council, is there going to be any discussion about where the money would come from for this?
EMERALD: Well, yeah. We have to make it a priority. Is this where we are. If we have this certain amount of money to spend, we'd have to decide what will be the most important priorities, what will be the top priorities of city government. And I tend to believe that public safety needs to be the top priority. And I know there are many. Clean water, safe roads, parks, rec centers to keep kids wise and out of trouble. Our libraries are a great resource for the community. But the community has spoken. And so what I'm doing is advocating for public safety here. In the first year, which includes this fiscal year, we got the funding set aside for an in-station alerting system. That gets the word to our crews in the -- at the stations that we need your help, you need to get on the vehicles and get moving. And I welcome anybody to visit a fire station in town and see what we're using now.
CAVANAUGH: Right. It's outdated is what the rapid says.
EMERALD: You walk in Eand it's a spaghetti fires, you know, the firefighters themselves have Jerry rigged this communication system, and it's all these wires everywhere, and you wonder how do they communicate at all?
CAVANAUGH: Right. Katy, I want you to remind us, what is the price tag we're talking about about implementing the fire stations and the recommendations of report?
ORR: Total to build the fire stations and to pay would be about $100†million, and then to pay people to staff those stations would be about $40†million a year. And I have to say on the other side of it, there are people who question whether or not we should be building these stations, because as we've mentioned earlier, 90 or so% of the calls that these firefighters respond to are not fires. They're medical related
CAVANAUGH: And are engines sent out on those calls?
ORR: Yes, they're. Because the 911 accepteds eight the call, and the fire stations respond, and normally, there are fire engines closer than there might be an ambulance to respond to that call. So the fire engines go out.
>> And also the staffing issue that you need more than two people often on a medical emergency. And so you've got your EMT, paramedic on the ambulance, then you've got your firefighter paramedics coming. They converge, do the triage in the field. Sometimes you need those extra hands to treat somebody who's critically injured, to contact them for a car crash or to get them out of an you upstairs apartment or whatever it might be. And so you need those extra hands. And that's been proven out nationwide, that those extra hands do save lives
ORR: Right. And the fire chief will say that's have they have paramedics on all of these emergencies. And the system we have in place is the most effective system for responding to medical emergencies. But there are people out there who say, is there a way to rethink this? We don't build houses with wood as much anymore. We use stucco. You need defensible space around your home. There isn't as much fire danger in normal houses as there used to be just because of the way our building materials have evolved. So do we need to spend $100†million building these fire stations? Some people would say yes we do. Because even though you don't have a fire every day, what if you do have a fire?
EMERALD: We have 19 stations on the list. So the wish list is 19 stations long. So you can do the math. If there's $100†million involved. We also have a new approach to so-called capital improvement projects be the CIP system, which we've heard lately has really been inefficient. And it has. We're not spending money as quickly as we can.
EMERALD: Our city auditor says wee got hundreds -- a backlog of hundreds of millions of dollars of projects that have been entitled, funded, and not built. We need to find a better way of putting that money to use. And what a stimulus package that is.
CAVANAUGH: We have injuries with the engineering folks to see if we can save money on on this project
CAVANAUGH: John is calling from La Jolla. Good afternoon, welcome to the show: Flew new I think that's don
CAVANAUGH: Okay, Don. Thank you.
>> I've had this idea for quite a call. And I want to see what you think about temperature I'll take my answer off the air. I would think that a public/priority partnership with with insurance companies that paid out almost a billion dollars in losses in the 2002 fire, and I don't know how much in 2007, what do you think of that? They could certainly come up with $100†million from their profits to build the stations, and 40 million a year would save them a tremendous amount if there was a large fire.
CAVANAUGH: Don, thank you for the call. What do you think?
EMERALD: Wouldn't that be nice? During those same fires or right after them is as the ashes were cooling, we also discovered that the insurance industry had basically pulled a bait-and-switch on consumers, that the bulk of the people who lost homes found they were grossly under insured because they were sold a bill of goods by their insurance companies. Then insurance commissioner John gara mendy, along with people whose homes were lost in the Scripps Ranch area, went to sa-Sacramento and changed state law to require greater transparency and disclosures from insurance coverages about what replacement coverage really is. O is it likely we'll have some kind of a love fest with the insurance industry? Probably not. But these are questions that are all worth asking and what makes San Diego County, for example, more insurable? How can we bring rates down? And what Katy was mentioning about defensible space, and new building materials and new designs, that helps make this region more insurable.
CAVANAUGH: In the minute we have left, I'm sorry --
EMERALD: I know, I've got so much to say on this.
CAVANAUGH: As you're thinking about public safety being one of your priority, and as the City Council is discussing the idea of building this roadmap with new fire stations down the road, do you think this is the kind of project San Diegans would be willing to pay an extra tax for?
EMERALD: You know, I would -- I'm not sure about San Diego's appetite for higher taxes. We've just seen it in the last election cycle
ORR: We did it. Upon they said no.
EMERALD: And they said no. Now the state has exposed some new fees for back country property owners. And I know that there's some rebellion about that. Internally, what fire agencies here are doing is they're going back and looking at their own procedures like instead of worrying about whose jurisdiction the fire is, the closest unit just goes. And that's the kind of cooperation we've seen from our first responders all along. We're short on money, yes. We can all complain about, gee, if we just had an extra hundred million bucks. Butt thing that keeps these agencies going, and the people in this area safe is the the dedication and perseverance of these first responders. They're putting everything on the line every time that bell goes off. And I want to keep them safe too. I want to make sure they go home to their will families after their shift. And that they're in one piece as well as protecting the public
CAVANAUGH: We're out of out. Marti Emerald, thank you so much for coming in and speaking with us.
EMERALD: Thanks for your interest.
CAVANAUGH: And KPBS San Diego metroey reporter, Katie Orr. Thank you both
ORR: Thank you.