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More Fire Stations Are Needed But Who Will Pay?

Audio

Aired 5/14/10

The regional fire services deployment study found that 14 more fire stations are needed to provide adequate coverage. What does this mean for the upcoming wild fire season?

GLORIA PENNER (Host): I’m Gloria Penner. I’m joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. Today, with summer and fire season around the corner, we’ll examine a new study that finds that the San Diego region’s fire services are under-equipped, understaffed, underfunded and fragmented. And we’ll look at the local job market for new college grads, and the local nonpartisan races now targeted by political parties. The editors with me today are JW August, managing editor, 10News. JW, top o’ the morning to you, JW.

JW AUGUST (Managing Editor, KGTV 10News): W – oh, ohh, top of the morning to you, Gloria.

PENNER: I stole your line. Barbara Bry, associate publisher and executive editor for SDNN.com. Barbara, it’s good to see you.

BARBARA BRY (Associate Publisher/Executive Editor, SDNN.com): Thank you, Gloria.

PENNER: And Kent Davy, editor of the North County Times. Kent, thank you again for making the drive down from wherever.

KENT DAVY (Editor, North County Times): My pleasure.

PENNER: Okay, our number when you want to call in is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Well, it cost $300,000 and it was done by a respected fire consulting firm. It was a study of the San Diego region’s firefighting readiness, and its conclusions were not heartening. First of all, JW, why was the study done?

AUGUST: Because we need a game plan. We know we have issues. And I actually started reading it last night and, you know what, I’m not big on government studies because there’s – I have closets full of them at work. But this thing was well done, well thought out, and if you go through it, it’s pretty eye-opening. It’s a primer on fighting fires in the 21st century. It’s really well done.

PENNER: All right, so what were the main findings?

AUGUST: Well, what this – I don’t want to do a lecture on this but the – It’s all about what they call speed and wait, determining how fast they get there and what kind of gear you’ve got to get there. And they have – and they evaluate the road system in the county, the density population, the proximity for the fire, what type of fire, and how well prepared are we, you know, the response time. And the fire stations, and they – they quadranted the county and they looked at different areas and these fire stations they call for don’t – fall into areas and gaps where we don’t have a good response time. And they make some pretty clear recommendations and they do a very good summary of where we’ve been and where we should be going.

PENNER: Okay, so…

AUGUST: But no money. They don’t talk about where the money’s coming from.

PENNER: But they say we need money…

AUGUST: Oh, absolutely.

PENNER: …a lot of money.

AUGUST: Don’t we always?

PENNER: Yes, of course, and in this day and age that’s hard to come by. Let me ask our listeners about this. Are you feeling pretty secure about our ability to fight the fires that inevitably come to San Diego if not every year, every few years with summer coming and – We’ve already had one 500 acre of brush fire, I think, in North County. Are you feeling okay about this or do you feel as though we need to beef up our services? Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. So, Barbara, you’ve sort of got an idea of what the findings were. We need more fire stations, more firefighters, more money. These are conclusions that were already known, weren’t they, and not unexpected.

BRY: I think the findings weren’t unexpected but as JW said, this report is very thoughtful and it’s very clear about where we need new fire stations, how much it’s going to cost to build the new fire stations. They say $92 million to build the new fire stations. They talk about how much it’s going to cost to fund the new fire stations so what the annual additional cost to the budget would be. So this is really very concrete and now the County’s able to take action.

PENNER: Will the County take action?

BRY: I think the County will take some action because public safety is the number one issue for local – the number one priority for local government, and that’s police and fire.

PENNER: All right, let’s keep that $93 million (sic) in mind. Kent, two years ago Prop A, which would’ve created a parcel tax to fund fire services, lost in a countywide vote by just three percentage points. Is a new tax what is needed? Or can the supervisors simply reorder priorities to fund public safety?

DAVY: Well, probably both are true or neither is true. I think that, contrary to what JW said, I think the reason the study was done is because the parcel tax lost and, therefore, the people supporting fire reorganization and provision and more fire services in general went back to the drawing board and said, okay, we’re going to prove the case and why it’s needed, hence the study. With regard to what the supervisors can and can’t do, one thing worth remembering is they do have $750 million in reserves. Now, all that is not available to spend any which way they want. Some of it, I think $400 million is in the tobacco tax fund, so that’s a dedicated separate fund. But there are substantial dollars that they do have available. But you need to remember that this is, first of all, fire services in this county already cost a half a billion dollars a year, and this represents a substantial commitment of additional funds and resources. And right now, nobody has any extra money to spend. Everything, everybody’s cutting budgets.

PENNER: Okay, so keep that in mind, JW, what Kent was just saying, that we don’t really have, you know, the excess money. But comes wildfire season, are we going to be concerned from these findings that we are not ready for that season?

AUGUST: Well, let me preface this by saying that this does look at how far we’ve come. I remember after 2003, 2007, the agencies didn’t talk to each other, they didn’t even have the same radio frequencies. There was a lot of issues with coordination, just basic coordination. A lot of times a fire would be taking place right next door to a fire station but it was in the wrong district, so they wouldn’t send the fire truck. It – you know, a lot of stupid stuff. They’ve dealt with the stupid stuff. They’ve done a better job of coordinating, and that’s a positive thing. And they’re doing a much better job talking to the military, setting up a plan if you can call in the military helicopters. They’ve done all the cheapo stuff they can do. Now it comes down to the hardware, is what I think what it’s about.

PENNER: Our number is 1-888-895-5727. We’re taking your calls. Are you feeling comfortable about our readiness to fight the fires in the San Diego region? Let’s hear from Robert in La Mesa. Robert, you’re on with the editors.

ROBERT (Caller, La Mesa): Yes, hello. My comment would be, and I think that the government shouldn’t be put on all the responsibilities. I think that if I lived in the area, there should be some sort of organization or some sort of volunteer support to put something together in today’s budget, at least maybe for this year or the next year. That’s the way they used to do it in the olden days and I don’t know, that’s – I don’t live in the area, so I don’t know how they would do that…

PENNER: Well, you raise…

ROBERT: …or if people would be willing to. But I’ll take my comment off the air.

PENNER: Okay. You raise a very interesting point about volunteer firefighters. Kent Davy.

DAVY: Well, right now provision for back country is principally by volunteer firefighters and the CDF. See, the state owns and the federal government owns substantial pieces of property in the back country so they have some responsibility to participate. But there are 700 volunteer firefighters. And part of the resistance on a political scale, historically the creation of a large, say, countywide fire department is volunteer companies saying, no, we would much rather take care of ourselves, that we don’t trust—and I heard this as recently as this week—we don’t trust county government or a regional government to supply our needs. We would much rather take care of ourselves.

PENNER: Sort of that independent spirit of certain communities?

DAVY: I’ve heard people complain that, you know, they – that while you can get a plumber to your house, you can’t get other kinds of services like a sheriff’s deputy to your house if you live out in the back country.

PENNER: So what would this mean then, Barbara, about consolidation? It’s not the first time there’s been a call for more consolidation of fire districts. I remember last year we did an interview with Augie Ghio who is the chief of the San Miguel Consolidated Fire Protection District and president of the County Fire Chiefs Association, and he said that the consolidation of the 55 different fire agencies is critically important. Why hasn’t that happened?

BRY: Well, I think as Kent said, it’s partly political and the report did recommend that the five dispatch centers that we currently have be consolidated to two and I believe in Los Angeles there’s one dispatch center and, you know, LA County seems to work fine. You know, back on the finances, I think it’s important to note that if you build 40 – 14 new fire stations that cost $92 million, that’s a capital expense. First of all, you don’t have to build all the stations at once, and, second, you can issue bonds to finance the cost of the new fire stations as long as you can identify a revenue source for repayment of the bonds. And, second, before the show, JW and I were doing some rough math on the additional operating cost and, you know, looking at the report, it’s about $15 million more a year to operate the additional stations and given that the budget’s now about $500 million a year to operate the county fire services, that’s about a 3% increase. It’s not substantial. So I agree with what was said earlier that part of the reason this report was done was to use it as an education tool to the community which then might support some sort of increased revenue.

PENNER: I think money is certainly at the heart of the matter. I’d like to ask our listeners how you think we should pay for more fire services. What would your choice be? And our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. I want to thank Robert for his call. Let’s hear from J.D. in Spring Valley. J.D., you’re on with the editors. Welcome. Oh, it’s Jay. I’m sorry. Okay, Jay in Rancho Penasquitos. Jay, you’re on with the editors.

JAY (Caller, Rancho Penasquitos): Very good. Thank you. Good, important topic. The canyons in the city areas or in the city zones are something that, because I live next to them, are important to me. It’s not this season, I think, that’s going to be the worst season, it’ll be the following season. Next – not this coming October but next fall when things are really, really dry. So where are all the goats that were going to be hired by the county to get in here and clean up our canyons? And I don’t say that with tongue-in-cheek, it’s a genuine question. Some preventative effort seems to be lacking. Just a year ago in the Adobe Bluffs canyon, the City paid for the removal of palm trees inside a supposed swampy area because it was going to let the water flow more quickly. It was a complete waste of money, in my opinion. Rather, they should have been brush clearing all around the edges of the canyon and giving those homes the protection. So it’s – the folks that were the vector control folks in the city made…

PENNER: Right.

JAY: …a decision to spend the money and it would’ve made more sense to have them cooperate and say, hey, guys, how can we effectively – we know we want to spend this money, how can we effectively spend it to actually go after something that’s a real issue for the people in this community, which is the fire prevention versus vector control for mosquito abatements and removing a few palm trees from the middle of a swampy area.

PENNER: Okay, well, Jay…

JAY: So I – So I would like to know how to effectively get the city to use their dollars more wisely.

PENNER: Jay, I think you’ve asked the hundred million dollar question. And we’re going to get our expert on the city finances. What about it, JW?

AUGUST: If I knew that answer, I’d be running for mayor for the next election. I – You just have to lean on your city councilperson, remind them don’t do stupid things. I live on the 32nd canyon, 32nd Street canyon and they’re proposing some really weird remedies for the weeds and the stuff in the canyon and they’re not thinking through it. So you’ve got to be vocal. Call your city councilperson, and call a television station or KPBS and raise heck. That’s the only thing you can do and empower yourself.

PENNER: Well, it’s true that the media does kind of call attention to some of the issues that are raised by the public and probably has a little more clout and…

AUGUST: And I’ll say something else. The thing to remember, Jay, is that the most important thing is to get the helicopters up and running and serviced and have the money for it. One of the issues in this report is the helicopter programs across the county and, actually, Chopper One put out a fire in my canyon once and I was very thankful to see that thing come in there. And we need the choppers because of the canyons and the funding for it is really sporadic so that’s an issue that this report addresses.

PENNER: Okay. Well, we’re going to come back to the report. We’re also going to come back to your questions and comments about fire readiness in San Diego. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.

PENNER: There was a recent report that just came out about fire readiness in San Diego and we, at the Editors Roundtable today, are discussing it. I’m Gloria Penner at the roundtable with Barbara Bry of SDNN.com, from the North County Times, we have Kent Davy, and from 10News, JW August, and your calls. So we’re going to take your calls because I want to hear what you have to say about our readiness, about how we can get ready, where we’re going to find the dollars for this, what should be done, and who should take charge. We’ll start with J.D. in Spring Valley. J.D., welcome to the Editors Roundtable.

J.D. (Caller, Spring Valley): Good morning.

PENNER: Good…

J.D.: My question is two things, one is, you know, I was one that voted against the increase or the tax for the fire relief and all that stuff. I felt like it was taxing the people who had chose not to live in the countryside. And when I go out to the countryside, I’m in Spring Valley, and when I go out to the countryside, and even in Spring Valley I see a lot of weeds and no one’s clearing them. And if we’ve done a lot, like one year, I guess you’re saying, we’d done a lot to prevent the fires in the first place, it’d cost us a whole lot less. I believe a couple million dollars would probably clear the whole San Diego – San Diego County. And – But no one’s really trying to deal with that. It’s not in the best interest of the firefighters because they get paid overtime to go fight fires and they look forward to the fire season and as the San Diego taxpayers get the raw end of the deal. So that’s my two questions or comments and I’ll take them off the air.

PENNER: Okay, well, I was going to take another call before we responded to you but I think your questions are provocative enough. Let’s go right to JW on that one.

AUGUST: They – I admit, they’re not spending enough money on weed abatement but one or two million dollars won’t get it done. I mean, it’s a lot of money to take control of these. I mean, you can use maybe people out of the jails, there’s different ways to do it, but it’s very – it’s not exactly cost effective. It’s very manual labor, manual intense. It’s tough, hot work.

PENNER: Kent Davy.

DAVY: The County, in fact, has—and I don’t have the numbers—but the County, in fact, has spent a lot of money clearing dead wood out of back country areas. That is a piece – people recognize that that is a piece of responsible fire protection. They have been at it – exactly how much that costs and how much – how efficacious it has been, I can’t answer that question.

PENNER: Okay, well, let’s go now to – is Gary ready to speak with us? Gary in Oceanside?

GARY (Caller, Oceanside): Yes.

PENNER: Go ahead, Gary.

GARY: Yeah. Okay, yeah, I heard something on the news a couple of days ago about fire sprinklers required in new homes, new residential homes. And I wanted to know if that was required for existing homes. Let’s say I have a home and I want to sell it. If that was required for me to sell my home, that increased revenue could be used to fund the fire service.

AUGUST: Umm…

GARY: And also I’d like to know if that is the law, whether existing homes are required now to have this sprinkler system involved.

PENNER: I’m going to say our editors don’t have that information. They have their opinions, though. So, Barbara, what’s your opinion? You think that should be required?

BRY: I don’t really know enough about this issue to comment but it sounds like a good idea.

PENNER: Kent.

DAVY: No, if you were to ask homeowners to install fire sprinkler systems inside of the house, it would be a – an enormous…

BRY: No, I meant only for new homes, not for retrofitting.

DAVY: New homes might be a different issue but even that would be a substantial cost.

PENNER: Okay, thank you, Gary. Speaking of new homes, when we – when one recommendation from that report— and I’m going to turn to you, JW—was that county officials limit urban development in rural, hard-to-serve areas. Now that’s one of the few recommendations that do not require an outlay of tax dollars. What do you think’s going to happen on that front?

AUGUST: The board of supervisors are going to take that part of the report and kind of crumple it in their hands and flip it under that little desk they sit at, you know.

PENNER: Why?

AUGUST: Well, they’re not going to consider that. Why, it’s homeown – I mean, land owners’ rights. For goodness sakes, you can build anywhere you want, anything you want, any time you want.

PENNER: Kent Davy.

DAVY: That is not an accurate description of what the general plan update is doing, however. The general plan update, in fact, would downzone back country enormously to prevent subdivisions. So…

PENNER: How are developers dealing with that, Kent?

DAVY: Well, I think that – I’ve not talked to any developers for some time but I assume the developers are concerned about figuring out where they’re going to find any property or land that is available for anything other than infill development.

PENNER: Okay, so…

BRY: Yeah, that’s…

PENNER: …let me probe your mind a little bit more on all of this, Kent. If you were going to try to find dollars, let’s say that aren’t being used wisely, in order to help fund some of the fire safety, where might one place be?

DAVY: Well, you could take the $5 million left of the discretionary fund and buy one fire station, the county supes’ slush fund, if you will.

PENNER: Okay, Barbara Bry?

BRY: Well, I have a question. You know, according to the data most of the time a fire engine goes out, I guess it’s over 90% of the time it’s for, you know, it’s a paramedic type call. So I don’t understand why the fire engine needs to go if it’s someone had a heart attack or a stroke and I don’t know how much money that would save if they didn’t go out on those calls.

PENNER: I was at a fire station recently and asked that question. And apparently a lot of the equipment is on the fire truck that they use, and also the people. It takes one person, let’s say, to stabilize the patient, another person to call ahead, another person to access the person’s medical record, another person to intubate or whatever they do to get it breathing, so it takes about four or five people to work these people and, therefore, they need to go out on a truck.

BRY: It still seems like it could be done more efficiently.

PENNER: Okay.

DAVY: It does raise the issue…

PENNER: Yeah.

DAVY: …particularly for back country and talking about all of the rural area where population is very, very sparse, of what kind of services ought we provide? Wildfire and heart attacks are vastly different kinds of things, and different kind of operations, and different kinds of threat to the general population.

AUGUST: Well, I’d say in their defense, though, when the initial call comes in, there’s always some confusion. It’s not always clear cut what the heck’s going on. I’m not saying that’s an excuse for this but that’s one of the issues.

PENNER: Okay, well, thank you very much for your discussion of the report and now let us move on.

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