Thursday, March 4, 2010
San Diego’s fire department has been operating under a money saving strategy for about a month. Under the plan, up to eight fire engines can be idled each day and their crews reassigned to cover for sick or absent firefighters.
SAN DIEGO San Diego’s fire department has been operating under a money saving strategy for about a month. Under the plan, up to eight fire engines can be idled each day and their crews reassigned to cover for sick or absent firefighters. The plan saves money but could also impact the department’s response times.
One night a few years ago, Nancy Kirk’s Christmas lights started a fire in her garage. The screeching smoke alarm woke her up. She ran through the smoke and randomly started grabbing things out of her son’s room.
“Posters off Trevor’s wall in his bedroom, because it was closest to his bedroom. I was trying to save his medals from water polo but I grabbed posters instead,” she says. “And then I started choking on the smoke and I went, ‘OK, time to go.’”
Nancy lives in the San Diego neighborhood of University City. She says the fire department got to her house in about five minutes. But UC is one of the communities that will now be subject to the department’s so-called rolling brownouts. Under the plan certain firefighters will be reassigned to cover for others who are off. The measure will save the city $11.5 million in overtime costs. But it also means people might have to wait longer for help if their neighborhood truck is busy somewhere else.
“The alternatives, quite frankly, were a lot worse,” said San Diego Fire and Rescue Chief Javier Mainar. He recommended the brownout plan to city leaders. He says it was the best option in the face of massive budget cuts.
“I did not feel it was appropriate to close fire stations within the city. That was my recommendation to the Mayor and the council. They ultimately agreed,” Mainar said. “I also did not feel it was in the long-term best interest of the fire department or the community to lay off fire fighters.”
Mainar says the department’s been lucky. So far the brownouts have slowed responses in just two out of 7,400 calls. But the brownouts aren’t going to help the fire department’s already lagging response times.
The department tries to gets to most of its calls within five minutes. But it takes longer about half of the time. That’s partly because some neighborhoods are really spread out. Fire stations north of Interstate 8 have to cover larger areas. Retired Assistant Chief John Jondall says the fire department was marginalized during the urban planning there.
“Well, for instance you take Mission Valley. For years and years, we knew that with potential planning we were going to need a station on the east end and west end,” he said. “And slowly but surely, all the property was spoken for.”
Jondall says the response times in Rancho Bernardo and along State Route 56 are already among the slowest in San Diego. The area around University Town Center is also a concern. It’s one of the city’s most densely populated neighborhoods, full of apartment complexes, hotels and office buildings. Its neighborhood station covers an area about three times the size of downtown. Fire Chief Mainar says that area alone could use two or three new stations.
“I am now the third fire chief in a row that will tell you that we need more fire stations in the city,” he said. “Our figures say that that’s somewhere around 22 additional fire stations that really need to be built so that we can get closer to providing the types of services and speed of response that we think is appropriate.”
But building more fire stations is an expensive proposition. Mainar says the city would also need to find money to train and pay the firefighters that would staff them. That’s not likely in a time when San Diego is facing multi-million dollar budget deficits. Mainar says in the meantime, people will be waiting longer for firefighters to arrive.
“You can hope that you’re not the person who has to make the 911 call for a loved one. But hope’s not a great strategy,” he says.
Mainar says the brownouts are the best way to cut costs, but he admits the city’s rolling the dice with public safety.