New San Diego Fire Chief Faces Challenges
Thursday, November 12, 2009
What are Fire Chief Javier Mainar's goals for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department? We speak to Mainar about his promotion, and the challenges the fire department faces in these difficult budget times.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The City of San Diego’s new fire chief won’t have to spend much time getting to know the department; he’s been working in it for the last 29 years. Javier Mainar started his career as a firefighter back in 1980 and rose to the position of Assistant Fire Chief before being appointed last month as Tracy Jarman’s successor. Chief Mainar takes the reins of the fire department as San Diego faces record budget deficits. It’s likely the fire department will face cuts even though wildfire remains one of the biggest threats to the safety of our city and our region. It’s a pleasure to welcome my guest, Fire Chief for the City of San Diego, Javier Mainar. Welcome to These Days.
JAVIER MAINAR (Fire Chief, City of San Diego): Maureen, thank you very much and thank you once again for letting me join you on the show. I appreciate it.
CAVANAUGH: It is a pleasure. We’re so happy you’re here. I’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you have a question about Chief Mainar’s plans for the fire department? You can give us a call at 1-888-895-5727. First of all, congratulations on your promotion.
MAINAR: Thank you very much. It’s an honor.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I read you beat out 40 other applicants after a nationwide search. I’m wondering, why do you think city officials decided to go with the hometown guy?
MAINAR: Well, you know, I’m very pleased that the mayor and council did decide to go with a hometown person. It was a rigorous process, the series of interviews that we went through. I think what took me over the top was that I did know the department very, very well and I also knew the region and how firefighting cooperation occurred in Southern California. It didn’t seem to me—and I discussed it during the interview process—it didn’t make a lot of sense to me to bring a newcomer in in the middle of the height of our wild land season. In addition, it would – you know, big budget cuts looming on the horizon, it made more sense to me to have someone inside so long as the mayor and council had faith in that person, to have someone from the inside take the reins of the department.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I’ve already mentioned that you’ve been in the department since 1980. Tell us a little bit about your background in the San Diego Fire Rescue Department.
MAINAR: I did begin in January of 1980. It’s been a great career for me. I mean, I really feel blessed that I found it. It’s been great to me and my family. One of the things I like about working for a large agency is the opportunity to do a variety of different things. I’ve worked in the fire station environment in the busiest fire stations in the city. I was attracted to the activity level. Certainly, when I was younger, it was a lot of fun to do that. I’ve also had an opportunity to serve as a fire investigator and working with the Metro Arson Strike Team, conducted well over 1500 fire investigations, and that job is more along the lines of being a detective than it is being a firefighter. I’ve also served in administrative assignments in the Human Resources Division of the department. In my prior position as Assistant Chief, I oversaw kind of the back of the house, the part of the department that most firefighters don’t see as they’re coming up the ranks. We’re all geared toward emergency response and management of those things but I wanted to take a look at how we got to build fire stations, hire people, do those kinds of things, manage the budget. And that three-year assignment as Assistant Chief was very helpful.
CAVANAUGH: I don’t want to make this sound like you’re interviewing again for your position but I’m interested to know what first attracted you to the fire department, becoming a firefighter? What attracted you and what kept you in? What do you like about it?
MAINAR: Well, I tell you what attracted me to it was really just by happenstance. I grew up in an Air Force family. When I was a senior in high school, we were living at Edwards Air Force Base, is where the shuttle lands, just north of Los Angeles. And I was racing motorcycles; there was a dirt bike club on the base and I ran across a federal firefighter, an Air Force firefighter and he kind of took me under his wing and I got to go to the fire station a couple of times and, well, you know, that sounded like a pretty interesting thing, a lot of teamwork and so on. So I came to San Diego to go to school, started in the Grossmont College’s fire technology program, then went to Miramar College and ultimately graduated from here, San Diego State University. But what I like about it, there are great people in the fire service. They’re committed to helping others, and there’s nothing more gratifying than on someone’s worst day, whether it’s a medical emergency or some type of fire, going out there, being at your best, and helping them get through that really difficult time. It is incredibly rewarding I’ll say, and I enjoy the variety of it. It’s an exciting life. It can be a little challenging at times. I certainly feared for my safety a few different times but I don’t think I’d change a thing.
CAVANAUGH: Well, we talk about the challenge and the excitement, you were the fire department’s incident commander during the 2007 wildfires, that terrible time here in San Diego. And I wonder, what did you take away from that? What lessons did you learn, if any, from being on, you know, one of the top officials trying to control that fire and the fight against it?
MAINAR: You know, there were a number. One of the biggest ones is you can’t overestimate the value of surrounding yourself with very good people. You know, I get credit for being incident commander but there was an incident management team directing the city’s operations and out in the field were hundreds of firefighters and the managers who were directing their operations that I think just did an incredible job. The other thing it taught me is that we in San Diego are in a bit of a cul de sac and the weather patterns are such in Southern California that the fires and the winds – the winds begin to blow north of us, the fires tend to begin north of us and a lot of resources begin to get committed there. When the winds finally do reach San Diego and the fires inevitably begin, there often is not enough help to come into San Diego. So we needed to develop a greater capability to be self-sufficient for the first two or three days of that fire because simply now twice, in 2003 and 2007, no one could aid us.
CAVANAUGH: And so what – Do you have some ideas as to how we could become a little bit more self-reliant in those initial 48 hours?
MAINAR: What would we do? And we’ve done a lot of things. We’ve been very fortunate. As tough as the budgets have been for the last few years for the City of San Diego, this mayor and the councils that have been in place during that time have committed themselves to public safety. We brought on a second firefighting helicopter for the City of San Diego, which is a tremendous resource in wildfires. We’ve also increased our fleet of reserve engines. At any point in time, two-thirds of our workforce is off duty so when we have a large incident we have the ability to recall a lot of people. In 2003 and 2007, we found that we didn’t have enough fire engines to put them on so through the help of the mayor and council, we’ve been able to increase that fleet from eight – 14 in 2003 to 18 in 2007. We’re now at 22 and by the end of the calendar year we’ll be at 32 reserve apparatus.
CAVANAUGH: Now I know that you were a supporter of the SDG&E plan to shut down the electrical service in the back country when conditions were very high risk for a fire. That plan has been rejected and going through a lot of problems at this point and it hasn’t happened yet. Why were you supportive of it and what would you like to see happen with it?
MAINAR: Well, I tell you my first choice would be to underground those lines. I know it’s incredibly expensive and for that reason it probably will never occur. But when the winds really start to howl, as long as the systems operate within – the way the systems are designed to operate in those kinds of winds that are predictable, we should be fine, but inevitably we seem to have these fires that start. I understand the concerns of the back country residents who would be without power during those peak periods but we absolutely need to find a better way to keep those power lines from starting fires. And in the case of the City of San Diego, twice now a fire has originated outside of its jurisdiction, came roaring into the city and caused considerable damage.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a call. I’m speaking with San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainer, and we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Michael is calling from Pacific Beach. Good morning, Michael, and welcome to These Days.
MICHAEL (Caller, Pacific Beach): Good morning. I’d like the new fire – is it chief or captain?
MICHAEL: Okay. He’s now the chief administrator for the fire department. Is he going to continue in these times of economic downturn to pay firefighters higher salaries than anybody else in the city, over a quarter million dollars a year, and have the top five people in the City of San Diego continue to be firefighters who are just milking the overtime.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thanks for the call, Michael.
MAINAR: Michael, that’s a great question and that’s one that I often receive. There is quite a bit of concern in the community that I think public employees in general are overcompensated. I will tell you that by the City’s own studies that are put together for negotiations, the firefighters and, in fact, city employees in San Diego are not overpayed compared to other cities that are comparable. I will tell you this, that there is also much consternation about the overtime. We have found it cheaper within the City of San Diego and have demonstrated to everyone’s satisfaction within the City structure, that it is less costly to pay firefighters overtime than it is to hire additional firefighters. The cost of benefits, including retirement and other things like that, are so expensive now that it is cheaper to pay existing firefighters time and a half to fill vacancies. It’s also important to note that a lot of those firefighters who are earning the figures that you cite, and I don’t know of many that are earning $250,000, but there are those who are earning that money, they are gone from their family for up to 21 days at a time and they’re serving often outside of the city’s jurisdiction and much of that overtime is reimbursed, ultimately, by the state or federal government.
CAVANAUGH: Now that the City is in such terrible budget straits, is – basically everything is on the table, including that kind of overtime, isn’t it?
MAINAR: Well, it is. We’ve been asked to cut $34 million from our budget to help the City close a $180 million gap. One of the measures that we’re looking at is a way to reduce overtime but, once again, it bears noting that we purposely do not fill all of the vacancies we have and we use the savings that result from that to pay that overtime and then much of it is reimbursed on these strike teams.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s talk about the larger issue of these looming budget cuts. Just yesterday Mayor Sanders said that service cuts – it looks like service cuts are going to have to be made because the deficit for the City of San Diego is so huge. I wonder, you must be in discussions right now about where those cuts will be made in the fire department. Do you have a plan at this point?
MAINAR: Well, we’ve certainly met the requirement that we were asked to meet. We sent a list of potential budget cuts totaling $34 million. At the upper end of that range, there are some efficiencies that we can take within the department that would not be felt by the public, would be largely transparent. It would result in additional workloads for existing employees. As you move down that list of cuts, you start inevitably getting into the closure of units or the browning out of units. 80% of the money that we spend in our budget is for the service providers, firefighters, paramedics, lifeguards, all of those. The only way we’re going to get to $34 bill – excuse me, $34 million in savings is to impact those staffing costs.
CAVANAUGH: Now when you say cutting units, do you mean closing fire stations?
MAINAR: Well, we don’t yet – we certainly are in the plan and those are some of the proposals that are in that $34 million menu of possible choices that the mayor and council can enact. That possibility does exist this time around. We do have some fire stations that have multiple units operating out of them. You may see closures of some of those units within a single fire station. If the cuts become deep enough, and really toward the end of our list, recommendations we would not like to see implemented, then you may see fire station closures. And the same is true of the beach. We have some staffing we’re going to have to cutback in our beach coverage with the lifeguards and in some cases you may see beach closures as a result of this.
CAVANAUGH: What, as you look at making these cuts, what is your overall priority? What do you say this cannot be cut, these services cannot be cut.
MAINAR: Well, I’d like to kind of frame the discussion this way, by saying, you know, my two predecessors, Jeff Bowman as fire chief and Tracy Jarman more recently, have all been on record as saying this city is 22 fire stations short and over 300 firefighters short of where we should be today. I heard a long time ago, it said, if you find yourself in a deep hole, the first thing you should do is stop digging. So if we’re looking at cutting individual fire stations within the community, that is what I have at the very end of my list of possibilities there. I recognize that we have a responsibility to help the mayor and council close this budget deficit. I’m certainly participating and have recommended some very serious cuts. I certainly would be advocating to them, as I agreed to do during the selection process, that give them the best advice that I can. I would say we can ill afford, really, to close a community fire station.
CAVANAUGH: You know, so far, it’s been a mild fire season for here – for us here in San Diego and I’m wondering, during years where we have no major wildfires, and I’m touching wood as I’m saying that, can we actually save money that we can use next time we have a really bad fire season?
MAINAR: We don’t really have a mechanism within the City to do that.
MAINAR: When we do have these large firestorms that do come through, both the state and the federal government…
MAINAR: …tend to kick in with declarations of an emergency which opens up avenues to get reimbursed. Now sometimes that takes a little while but, typically, the City is made very near to hold for those very expensive firefighting costs.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you in closing, if I can, Chief Mainer, I know that you’re facing a very difficult fiscal situation as you take over the city fire department. But what are some of your goals for the future?
MAINAR: Well, my first goal is the safety of the community and of my workforce. This is a tough business to be in. We live in a fire prone environment here. It’s not a matter of if another fire will occur. Most certainly one will occur, and we need to ensure that we have all the resources necessary to protect the community. So what I committed to through the fire chief selection process, both to the mayor and to the council as they confirmed the mayor’s selection, I said, look, I will offer you candid recommendations, honest appraisals of where we are, my recommendations to the best of my professional judgment as to what should be done. But I recognize the final decision is not mine to make, and I also recognize I have the luxury of advocating for one city service. There are many other city services that the community finds valuable in the fire rescue department, the police department. We’re competing for those scarce dollars.
CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for talking with us today.
MAINAR: Thank you very much for having me on.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Fire Chief Javier Mainar, just newly appointed as Fire Chief of the City of San Diego. This is KPBS.org and you can post your comments at KPBS.org/TheseDays. Coming up, tracing the fish we eat back to the ocean and the fish farm. That’s next here on KPBS.