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Brownouts” Slow Fire Department Response To Choking Toddler


Aired 7/22/10

How are fire station "brownouts" affecting the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department's ability to respond to life-threatening emergencies? We speak to reporter Alison St. John about how the "brownouts" might have played a role in the death of a Mira Mesa toddler.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar says he doesn't know, and no one knows for sure if a 2-year-old Mira Mesa boy might have been saved. But what he can say is that the fire department's response time to the toddler's choking incident Tuesday night was longer than usual because of the cost-cutting brownout program. KPBS senior metro reporter Alison St John is covering the story. She joins us now. Good morning, Alison.

ALISON ST JOHN (KPBS Senior Metro Reporter): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Can you give us a rundown of what happened to little Bentley Do on Tuesday night?

ST JOHN: So he was apparently trying a gumball that a member of the family had bought for older members of the children and choked on it, and his family called 911 at 8:30 and the police department did arrive, according to the police, within five minutes and he was already suffering terribly and they administered CPR. The fire department with a paramedic on the engine—and they are very well trained for this kind of situation and have actual equipment—did not arrive until nine and a half minutes after the 911 call, according to the fire department. And they also administered CPR, were unable to revive him, took him to Scripps Mercy Hospital in La Jolla, where he was pronounced dead a little more than an hour later.

CAVANAUGH: Now why – what we’ve been reporting, Alison, what you’ve been reporting is that there is a fire station only about a block away from the child’s house. So why did it take 10 minutes for firefighters and paramedics to get there?

ST JOHN: Yes, and that is really the irony of this situation. The reason is because of the policies that the fire department has had to adopt to respond to needs for budget cuts at the City. They’ve developed a strategy whereby they what they say is brownout, they actually deactivate certain fire engines and then that means that crews at certain fire stations have to double up and cover the areas that normally would have been covered by those crews that are deactivated. And in this particular case, the crew that was in the fire station just down the street was out covering another emergency and was not available and as a result they had to bring in a truck from the South Bay.

CAVANAUGH: Now, it sounds like Mira Mesa is one of the communities that the fire department is most concerned about with relation to brownouts. Why is that?

ST JOHN: Well, the system that they’ve worked out, Maureen, is that there would be – they’re trying to make this as fair as possible for everybody in the city. And they have 47 stations, 47 fire trucks, and 12 or 13 of them actually have – I beg your pardon, not fire trucks, fire engines and there is a distinction because the engines are the ones that have all the equipment. And there’s only 12 or 13 that have an engine and a truck. So what they’ve done is they’ve done on a rotating basis, 8 of those stations will lose the use of an engine. Now, Mira Mesa is one of three stations that is not actually part of that rotation. They just don’t have that engine all the time. So the fire chief is saying he will look at the situation yet again. This is something that was put into place in February. As you can imagine, he has been poring over all the possible ways of responding to the need for budget cuts and this was the best way to preserve public safety that he could come up with but, as he said, if you have only 87% of your resources, is the way he put it, then you’re not going to be able to get to all the places on time. And, of course, we know that the fire department has already been struggling. There have been national accreditation standards that say that San Diego is 22 fire stations short. But the budget cuts meant that he had to find a way to reduce staffing, to reduce overtime costs, and these brownouts are the way that he – and he still feels, really, that there’s very little more tweaking he can do to avoid this – situations like this.

CAVANAUGH: We do have that sound clip from Chief Mainar. He spoke to the press about this incident. Here’s what he had to say.

JAVIER MAINAR (Fire Chief, City of San Diego): We’ve looked at this a million different ways but the bottom line is this: When you’re chasing 100% of your calls with only 87% 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.

CAVANAUGH: That’s San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar. And, Alison, you were talking about some national studies, some national consultants who’ve been brought in to look at the situation here in San Diego, and I believe that the national standard for fire departments is to respond to 90% of calls within 5 minutes. Do we know what percentage of time the San Diego Fire Department hits that goal?

ST JOHN: They just don’t meet that goal. They get as close as they can but I think it’s more like in the 60, 70% range. And so bearing in mind that they’re dealing with financial constraints, they do the best they can. And, I mean, it is worth noting that in this case the police were able to get there within that five minute window and administer CPR and still that was not enough for this child. So it does remain an open question as to, you know, whether getting there in five minutes as the national standards require would have saved the child’s life. But, you know, the fire chief himself was saying that he regretted the fact that he could not get there on time. He, himself, with his own children would want that five minute window for his family. And so, you know, it’s hard for him. I mean, he was obviously very much regretting the fact that these cuts are not enabling him to do the job he would like to be able to do.

CAVANAUGH: Well, where does the city fire department go from here, Alison? Is there any indication that they plan to reexamine this brownout plan?

ST JOHN: Yes, they do report back to the City Public Safety Committee every month he said, and there’s another meeting of that next week and they will go over this incident again. And, of course, they’re going to examine everything again and reconsider all the issues. He said Mira Mesa is one of the communities that he has heard most complaints from. They are one of the ones that don’t get this rotating brownout, they just have to deal with it all the time. And so he’s going to look and see if there’s any other way of tweaking it. But, as he says, he doesn’t see a lot of different options here.

CAVANAUGH: Now there is a discussion going on in the City about potential half-cent sales tax increase. How does that issue play into this story?

ST JOHN: Well, that is why the timing of this is really so interesting, Maureen, because one of the arguments that the city council members are making is that the only way, really, that they can see to restore services to police and fire that has been cut recently is to increase revenues. They have cut – they’ve made a lot of cuts throughout the city and so they’re saying now it’s time to just consider, at least consider, the option of increasing revenues. And so that decision was made yesterday to take it to the city council to see whether the city council would agree to put that to the voters and let the voters decide, you know, have we seen enough cuts in our services? Do we feel that the City has done enough reforms, reorganization, increased efficiencies, looking again at how to deal with the pension deficit, that we are comfortable to say, yes, we will vote for a, I’m not sure how much, but a sales tax increase in the city of San Diego. So that is an enormous issue that’s taking up – burning up a lot of political oxygen at the moment. And this particular incident really highlights the dramatic life and death choices that these kinds of questions entail.

CAVANAUGH: Now the two-year-old’s death is, of course, a terrible tragedy for the family, the community. I know that the police officers and firefighters that responded to this scene are really broken up about it. But do we have any clear indication that this child would have been saved if the brownouts didn’t exist?

ST JOHN: No, that is definitely not a certainty, Maureen. It really is true to say that in this particular situation, it’s possible even if they had not had a brownout, even if the fire truck had been right there, it’s possible that the child would not have been saved. However, nobody can know for sure and it’s that uncertainty that remains, you know, such a question.

CAVANAUGH: Alison, if you’ll hang on with us for just a second. We have a caller on the line. Michelle is calling from Encinitas. Good morning, Michelle, and welcome to These Days.

MICHELLE (Caller, Encinitas): Thank you so much for taking my call. I wanted to make two comments and one of them being this just makes so crucial the need for parents and anyone dealing with children to take a CPR class. They’re offered at many local fire departments through the Red Cross, some community centers, etcetera. And then the other issue, too, so often I, when I’m out on the road, and I will see emergency vehicles trying to get cars to move over and they don’t. You know, cars, they may not hear the sirens but so often I see people just trying to speed ahead rather than moving over. And, you know, whether or not this would’ve made a difference, but in some cases seconds do count.

CAVANAUGH: Michelle…

MICHELLE: So those are the two issues that I wanted to…

CAVANAUGH: And very practical issues indeed.

ST JOHN: Mmm, yes.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Michelle, for calling and reminding us.

ST JOHN: That was one of the issues that Chief Mainar did make yesterday is that he would really urge all parents to learn those skills so that the initial emergency response is something that they can do because, you know, it’s not high tech but it can sometimes save a life. And he really said that he would like to see that be something families would consider, is learning CPR. And, I mean, I think this whole situation also kind of highlights that fire departments are not just about fires, and we’ve been worried about cuts to fire departments because of the risk of fire in our community but it’s often the case that actually far more frequently than being called to fires, they’re being called for health emergencies. And so that’s another life and death situation where, you know, those cuts are affecting the community.

CAVANAUGH: Alison, thank you so much.

ST JOHN: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with KPBS senior metro reporter Alison St John. If you would like to comment, please go online, Now when we return after this break, we’ll discuss one way cities and public safety agencies in San Diego are hoping they can uncover some new funds and that’s by making the county share Prop 172 sales tax revenue. We’ll be talking about that and taking your calls after this break. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

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Avatar for user 'maximus7761'

maximus7761 | July 22, 2010 at 9:25 a.m. ― 6 years, 8 months ago

We need to pay our city employees the fat pensions - we don't have money to save lives my friends - its going to get worse.


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Avatar for user 'kwcoulson'

kwcoulson | July 22, 2010 at 9:31 a.m. ― 6 years, 8 months ago

23 years ago, my then two year old son drowned in our pool in Poway. He stopped breathing and his heart had stopped. My then 16 year old stepson had taken a class at Poway High that included CPRs during the previous semester. The paramedics arrived approximately 10 minutes later to find a pink breathing two year old, ready to be transported to the hospital. My now 25 year old son, would not be alive today had my stepson not had that training. I urge all individuals to enroll in CPR training.

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Avatar for user 'maximus7761'

maximus7761 | July 22, 2010 at 9:36 a.m. ― 6 years, 8 months ago

Can you ask the Fire department (and other city employees) if they are willing to reduce their pensions slightly so we can save more lives ?... I think we know the answer to that one...

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Avatar for user 'SDListener99'

SDListener99 | July 22, 2010 at 10:01 a.m. ― 6 years, 8 months ago

It's too bad so little time was spent on the pension issue. The pensions that firefighters get is obscene and I don't think any tax increase will pass until that issue and all pension-related issues are solved. I would rather see the city go bankrupt and get out from the pension obligations than continue to throw money into a hole.

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Avatar for user 'edwardtlp'

edwardtlp | July 22, 2010 at 10:07 a.m. ― 6 years, 8 months ago

Citizens of the City of San Diego are already paying an extra 1/2 cent sales tax! We're paying the 1/2 cent imposed by Prop. 172, which was supposed to be for police, fire, and emergency services, but the County Board of Supervisors has instead diverted those funds to their own sheriff's dept and to the D.A. Yet the City Council has decided that their citizens STILL have to pay our own City Attorney for the costs of handling criminal prosecutions!! So we're paying for a service (criminal prosecutions) that we provide for ourselves!

The County is doing very well financially, as incumbent candidate Ron Roberts always brags about. Why shouldn't the County be handling the criminal prosecutions when it's what the city is already paying for through Prop. 172??

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Avatar for user 'BigMike'

BigMike | July 22, 2010 at 10:54 a.m. ― 6 years, 8 months ago

The Citizens of San Diego, and the City of San Diego need to ask themself what level of service they want and how they want to pay for it. Last years county wide parcel tax ( Prop "A") was voted down . I was told the voter in the City of San Diego voted agaist it and the measure Fail. This tells me that th Citizens of San Diego want less emergency sevices. So they can't complain that the city has to close fire stations. If they want to see better services then we all have to pay a little bit more. I want to know how the City of San Diego Fire Department can justify Closing a hole station/ fire engine. When they have four crew members on every fire engine, fire truck nad heavy rescue unit. They are the only fire department in the county that runs with a four man company. The standard in the county is three crew members. Yes having a four man company is safer for the firefighter and more work can be done on the scene of an emergency. But in these hard times would it not be beter to have a three person crew at fire station 38 than none at all. I am not saying all fire station need to be staff with only3 crew members and there may be a need for some units to have 4 or 5 crew members. This might be a way to save money and raise the level of care. I will add to the readers that I am a fire fighter in the county for the past 20 years and I have 10 more left, I know that all of my firefighter brothres and sisters find it hard to see any fire engine brown out, for us it realy is all about public service and safety.

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Avatar for user 'MtNebo'

MtNebo | July 22, 2010 at 11:25 a.m. ― 6 years, 8 months ago

Rather than getting caught up in the labor relations agenda behind this incident, shouldn't our first priority be to equip everyone with basic life saving skills. The need to use them can come at any time, any where.

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Avatar for user 'Jocelyn'

Jocelyn | July 22, 2010 at 2:42 p.m. ― 6 years, 8 months ago

This is a devastating story, and my heart goes out to the family. A common thread in the posts is about more people gaining the knowledge of basic lifesaving techniques.

In no way am I condemning the family for not knowing the Heimlich or CPR, but I do hope this story urges more to see the importance of learning CPR and first aid. Yes, it's not the best situation the fire departments and EMS services are in, and the public should be able to depend on them, but even if we were fully staffed, sometimes they just can't get there soon enough.

I have been a lifeguard and swim instructor for eight years and I have experienced child emergencies. CPR isn't usually the ultimate in lifesaving, but it certainly buys time until trained professionals arrive. The Heimlich, however, can actually be the ultimate lifesaving technique, if the obstruction is removed before the person goes too long without oxygen.

All parents should know CPR, as well as the older children if they are babysitting younger siblings, and especially if they are babysitting others' children. I taught CPR to jr. high students in a junior lifeguard program, and they are competent in learning the skills. There are plenty of options to take classes at affordable rates. And as a parent, one doesn't even need a certification to perform CPR on his or her own child. Ask a friend who knows CPR well enough to teach it to you.

As for state/county/city budgets for rescue workers, that's another story.

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Avatar for user 'carysgrant'

carysgrant | July 23, 2010 at 6:43 a.m. ― 6 years, 8 months ago

I do find this story very sad and distrurbing. There is only so much money to go around.

The city should step up ambulance services in the areas affected by a brown out? In this instance a paramedic or advanced EMT could have provided the early critical service needed to help this family. While the ambulance service is providing the critical early life saving service, the fire depatment a little farther away would have time to get there to assist if needed.

There are other very good cost saving options out there.

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