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SDFD Brownouts May Increase Response Times


To save money, the San Diego Fire Department has instituted "rolling brownouts" wherein up to eight fire engines are idled each day and their crews re-assigned. What will this mean for response times, especially north of Interstate 8, where fire stations are already scarce?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The policy to save the City of San Diego money by idling some fire engines has been in effect only a few weeks. It's being referred to as rolling brownouts. Yesterday, San Diego's fire chief gave a city council committee an update on how the policy is working so far. Joining us is my guest KPBS metro reporter Katie Orr. Good morning, Katie.

KATIE ORR (KPBS Metro Reporter): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: So tell us more exactly about what is meant by rolling brownouts.

ORR: Well, this is the plan that idles up to eight fire engines a day. It affects 13 different stations around the city, and they alternate them. You know, eight stations might be affected one month and then, you know, six another month. And what it does is idles these engines and then the crews that would normally be on these engines go to cover for firefighters that are sick or on vacation or for whatever reason, or not at work. And what it does is save the City overtime money. Instead of paying another firefighter overtime to cover that, they just reassign these firefighters basically.

CAVANAUGH: I understand. So what did Chief Javier Mainar say about the effect of the brownouts so far?

ORR: Well, it’s really pretty early. They only looked at 23 days and that’s where their data came from. So as you said in your intro, so far it hasn’t had too big of an impact. Officially, only three calls out of about 7100 have been impacted by brownouts but it’s hard to say if that’s really the true number. The way they report these calls is that firefighters who work them, if they think that the brownout had an impact on this call they are supposed to tell someone and report it to the fire department. And he says a lot of those calls might go unreported.

CAVANAUGH: So – And they’re especially concerned about this, I understand, because response times in some part of the city are already not too great, isn’t that right?

ORR: Right, well, the fire department has a goal of getting to every – to 90% of its calls within five minutes. It does that just over half of the time now. But some communities already had lower percentages like 30%, 35%. Since these brownouts have been in place, some communities, University City and Rancho Penasquitos, have seen that percentage drop to about 25% already, so it’s especially concerning for stations north of Interstate 8 because – or, communities north of Interstate 8 because they’re more spread out and the fire stations are responsible for a larger area.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I understand this policy is in place now but what kind of alternatives were considered to these brownouts?

ORR: Well, the fire chief says as, you know, bad as these are, this was the best option. The other option was laying off firefighters or closing down stations entirely, and he said that, to him, this was the best option.

CAVANAUGH: Now I understand the city has actually purchased some new fire trucks but somehow that doesn’t help our…

ORR: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …situation. Our numbers won’t grow.

ORR: Right, well, the fire chief says that in terms of actual firefighters, he’s got enough firefighters. What he doesn’t have is enough equipment. So if there’s a big disaster and he has to recall the firefighters that are off duty, there’s nothing for them to use. He had wanted to maintain ten old engines or older engines in addition to these new – this new equipment that he got but it costs $60,000 a year to maintain one engine. And so as part of this cost cutting measure, they’re auctioning off ten old engines to save, you know, $600,000.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Katie, it does sound to me like the fire chief wants to keep a really close eye on how these brownouts are working. Is he going to make regular reports back to the city council?

ORR: Yeah. He is required to report back to the council every month or so and, you know, I don’t know how long that will go on. As long as the brownouts are in place, although I’ve asked him how long he thinks that will be and he says it could be years that we could be looking at this if the financial situation doesn’t turn around.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much, Katie.

ORR: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with KPBS metro reporter Katie Orr. And you’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

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