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Emergency-Services Cuts Decried As Possible Factor In Toddler’s Death

Cutbacks in the city's emergency-services staffing may have played a role in the death of a toddler who choked on a gumball at his Mira Mesa home, Fire Chief Javier Mainar acknowledged today. The fire truck’s emergency response time was slowed because budget cuts have deactivated engines at 13 fire stations on a rotating basis.

Those brownouts save the city $11 million.

"Brownouts had a negative impact on our ability to provide service in this case," Mainar said, referring to the death of 2-year-old Bentley Do.

"What I cannot say is whether we could have saved (the boy's) life had we been there sooner," said Mainar.

Bentley's family made an emergency call shortly before 8:30 p.m. Tuesday to report that the boy had gotten a piece of bubble gum lodged in his windpipe and could not breathe, according to police and the county Medical Examiner's Office.

Though there is a fire station one block from the Dos' home, its engine personnel were on a call, filling in for another Mira Mesa station whose crew was unavailable due to the city's emergency-service "brownout" program, instituted last winter due to budget constraints.

Because of the staffing and equipment unavailability, an engine had to be sent from the South Bay. It arrived 9 1/2 minutes after the family's 911 call.

By then, police officers were at the home -- they had arrived within about five minutes -- and were performing CPR on the stricken child. Paramedics took over and took Bentley to Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, where he was pronounced dead about 9:45 p.m., officials said.

Under the cost-cutting service reductions, engine companies at 13 of the city's 47 fire stations are deactivated for a month at a time on a rotating basis, leaving up to eight of them unavailable each day. The firefighters that typically staff those vehicles fill in for other crew members who are absent from duty.

The program, which went into effect Feb. 6, is aimed at saving the city about $11.5 million in overtime expenditures. The strategy was part of a proposal that Mayor Jerry Sanders floated last year in a bid to close a $179 million budget shortfall. The City Council approved the cuts in December.

Councilwoman Marti Emerald has been adamant about the need to find funding to return the city's fire stations to full service but so far has been unable to locate the money. She says Do's death is the worst case scenario.

"(This is) what we feared might happen, that our resources are spread so thin that we put the public at risk," she said.

Emerald said there’s no way to know if the child would have survived had a fire crew gotten to him quicker. But she said his chances would have been better.

Mainar described the delay in emergency response to the toddler's fatal choking episode as extremely regrettable, if not clearly to blame for the death.

"I've had better days, I will tell you, both as the fire chief and as a parent of three children," he said. "I don't even know how you begin to deal with the death of a child. ... I don't know that we could have ... saved Bentley had we gotten there more quickly, but as a parent I will tell you I would always want that five-minute chance if I could have it for my family."

“We’ve looked at this a million different ways,” Mainar said, “but the bottom line is this: when you are chasing 100 percent of your calls with only 87 percent of the resources you formerly had, it’s going to take us longer to get somewhere. Sometimes you can redistribute the pain a little bit, but we feel we have the most efficient distribution right now.”

San Diego had to close a $179 million budget gap this year. The city faces another $70 million deficit next year.

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