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Roundtable: Covering The 2007 Fires, SDPD's Salary Deal

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October 20, 2017 1:11 p.m.

2007 Wildfires, SDPD Salary Deal


Laura Wingard, managing editor, iNewsource

Alison St John, North County Bureau Chief, KPBS News

Leng Caloh, technology & innovation manager, KPBS

Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS News

Related Story: Roundtable: Covering The 2007 Fires, SDPD's Salary Deal


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MS: Fires exploded on a sunny Sunday morning in October. They scramble reporters to cover the damage. Everyone wanted information and it was scarce and sketchy. Today we are taking a look at how our profession dealt with the wildfires. The disaster that tested us all and made the changes in how we deal with fires. I am Mark Sauer. The Roundtable starts right now.

MS: Welcome to our discussion. I am Mark Sauer. Joining me at the Roundtable today is Laura Wingard, Alison St John, Leng Caloh, and Andrew Bowen. Well, firefighting veterans describe it as a hurricane of fire. Trucks rocking in the winds and homes igniting like hay stacks. We are reminded of the week of horrific destruction 10 years ago. 10 dead and 23 civilians injured. 2400 structures destroyed and 13% of the landmass scorched. Reporters, editors, and managers of websites played crucial roles in helping lead people to safety. Start with where you were that Sunday.

LW: I was at the Union-Tribune and I wasn't working that day. I was -- I went to Temecula to celebrate the 80th birthday of my father-in-law and I get a frantic call from her sing we've got a big fire going. She was calling out resources and I began to make the trip back down the 15 and by midafternoon, you could just tell that this was bad. We were in another 2003 situation.

MS: It just been a few years since we did these fires.

LW: So, the normal thing that you do is we had the website and there was some breaking news reporters working on that and then calling in reporters and photographers on a Sunday and the newspaper usually has a light staffing on a weekend like that. We knew immediately. By the time I got back everything was pretty much we had things covered people deployed to various parts of the county. Then it quickly moved to East and going towards the north. We start laying out a plan much like the firefighters do. It’s like how we going to cover this to the night and what are we going to do?

MS: I want to get into more the challenges, but what about you. When did you get the call?

ASJ: It was a Sunday so I was off duty that day, but I got the call on Monday morning at 2:30 AM. I got out of bed and jumped in the car and you can see it. The whole hillside up in flames and in the middle of San Marcos area. I knew right away that we were going to be in trouble in North County and firefighters let me through in the road -- the flames were coming down the hillside right onto the road. It was thick with firefighters they just had a new fire station at the top of the hill and there were big flames over the road into the brush. That was the first time that I realized that firefighters don't always try to stop a fire. They said it is too dangerous. They did say if the house is on the hill.

MS: So many people turn to their radio and trying to get the latest update. At that point, you can see this was going to be a story for days.

ASJ: Yes, we were on the air 24 hours a day for more than three days.

MS: You are realizing this is going to be the way it is for several days.

ASJ: Yes. Were back out again after eight hours sleep so was like 12 hours shifts. We were on for 24 hours. There were people there all-night long. The fire does not stop.

MS: To give an idea and I touched on this on what the conditions were like. We have a bite here from San Diego fire chief on what the conditions were early on.

Fire Chief: The huge factor the wind when it died down we were able to get to work and finally get the fire out. There are some conditions that are acts of nature that we cannot control. We do our best to make sure that lives are saved and we protect the lives and then the property.

MS: So, he's talking specifically referencing what you were saying. We have something else I wanted to get to hear. Erik Anderson was talking to him about the conditions of firefighters working.

Fire Chief: The wind was taking the embers and debris that were the size of a basketball and blowing it for miles and starting fires from miles in front and we were trying to attempt to stop them.

MS: Laura, you are sending them in harm’s way. What do you tell them when they are out there?

LW: In 2007, it was very different. I would like to remind people that the iPhone was only four months old so they had flip phones. Not every reporter had a phone. We had reporters and they still do that are trained and this is their life. They have a lot of equipment including tents they could be in if they have to. Your sending them the scanners and trying to figure out where the hotspots were and your sending those that are really trained. We always caution people do not lose your life for this. If the flames are there, flee, get out, and be safe. There are some that are veterans and I remember him the night that the highway area -- we thought we were going to lose that. It was swishy and Jay was calling us and we lost communication with him because just like the firefighters had. You are thankful when you hear him and he can tell you that he safe.

ASJ: I don't know if it was the same day, but I remember driving by lake Hodges and there was no fire but there were huge black clouds over the mountains and the roads were pretty much empty and as I was driving north, the fire broke over the edge of the hills. The whole ridge was aflame. I had a turnaround at that point. There was a lake between me and the flames. If that had burned through that could've hit more of the area.

AB: If communication and wireless communication that we take for granted nowadays was so much primitive back then and maybe it's overburden how do people hear whether they had to evacuate? How was the fire department notifying people?

LW: I think the web was the first online the fire for this community. That became as important of an aspect like telling people to evacuate. The county had the emergency center set up. Because we had such a massive fire there was a lot of people who had registered to have -- you are also getting the firefighters going out to the neighborhood saying it's time to go and some did not get the call. It took off so fast and a lot of the people never –

MS: Some refused to go. At kpbs this was like huddle and let's make this up as we are going along. What did you do?

LC: I got the call on Sunday afternoon that there were fires going on and I immediately thought people are going to want to know where it is so I showed them where it was on the web to a map. I used the Google maps feature. It started out with the evacuation center and here's the fire and information about how many acres have burned, but it rapidly grew. Then our website went down. We were getting 36 times the regular traffic. We had to work with our technology provider and they set up a temporary site for us. We posted bullet points and created a Twitter feed and fed it on to our simple page. The cool thing was because it was so simple, it loaded quickly. I got some feedback that it was the only site that people were able to get onto.

ASJ: Google came out to the fire and wanted to know how they could help.

LC: They came down during the fire so overnight on Tuesday night engineers were like I think our servers are under attack, but it was just San Diego and the rest of the world try to see what was going on. They put more server power behind the maps and we talked with them and they released a couple of features to help us better serve the public.

MS: How fast were you updated?

LC: We had people working on it almost 24 hours a day. We had volunteers from other stations helping us out in people from the station working.

AB: It's interesting my hometown is Santa Rosa is a town I grew up in and when that was happening, I was checking CalFire's website in the of the maps’ interesting to see how it started from grassroots and Google assisting and now it's been adopted by official fire departments in the states.

LC: It's funny because CalFire embedded our on the website.

MS: I wanted to ask you had a website and they were in their infancy but was still basically a newspaper. You're looking for one deadline in 24 hours. What stories are you looking at that somebody would be doing? But people get this and how did you issue for that?

Something was that we created -- of breaking news team. It staffed the web 24 hours and they had a fire blog and that was to find out the evacuations. It was his thing. We found out this evacuated and just constant updating the information. Lori Hearn and I had divided duties. I took the breaking news aspect and worked with the editor. She monitored where we needed to send people for the breaking news aspect so we would have all of that covered. Then there was a team which was the enterprise team. It is what Lori directed because almost instantly questions began to arise. Was the county prepared? Did they get the calls out? Were they in Spanish. That was an issue. They did not have the reverse 911 in Spanish. Was there enough airpower going to these? How are we fighting the fires? There was whole team that was going after that in going after human interest stories and finding those stories –

MS: These are the longer stories that people can look at in the newspaper.

LW: People got very isolated and they didn't have access to the power. I remember there's a retirement home in Rancho Bernardo it burned up to there. They never evacuated and the delivery person for the Union-Tribune brought in a stack of newspapers. There were huge areas that they could not get newspapers to because of the fire. The senior citizens were like so excited because they felt they had no access to anything.

MS: Speaking of folks who were isolated, you did a story this weekend on the Stadium. The first folks who got there were making it up.

AB: I spoke with Mike McSweeney and he said that he got the call also on Sunday morning that Qualcomm Stadium was going to be a mega shelter and it will house a lot of people immediately and maybe after few days they can be filtered out to different shelters or maybe go back home. He got there and they made coffee for the early arrivals. It wasn't that long after that the Police Department arrived and they took over the logistics. My take away after talking with him is that I'm hearing the stories of how chaotic things were and things were certainly chaotic at Qualcomm Stadium that housed 10,000 people. 5000 people were in the parking lot, but they told me that they saw it as a success story and that people had a place to sleep, they had places to keep the elderly or the infirmed they had volunteered doctors, nurses, and EMTs in huge amounts of donations. They could not even --It is this massive pile of bread that had been donated. Huge stacks of donated water and that was one of the takeaways in the city of San Diego commission to look back on how the city responded to what they could improve for the next time. Something they mentioned is better coordination of donations. The all might go to the shelter, but what about the schools and gymnasiums in different places.

MS: Talks about today's firefighters and what they learned from these tragedies of the past.

Fire Chief: We planned pages and pages of information, so if the fire comes of this canyon, here's how many fire engines were going to need and crews were going to need and fire engines were going to need. So, we know when to start evacuating the neighborhood so we allow time for people to make the announcement and people to get out of harm’s way.

ASJ: The evacuation was not that easy. I remember standing looking at Interstate 5 going north crawling in the people telling me if we have to evacuate, we are going south. That is the freeway and the other place that I visited there were hardly any houses back then and now a whole community has built up. I feel like the key here is evacuating early.

MS: How much better would you be at the websites if something were to happen?

LC: I remember back in 2007 visiting the visualization center where they did have some of the data. Today the technology is probably built on them. They had drones and they could see were the hotspots were but it was still in its infancy.

MS: They recognize the service. That was a terrific discussion. We will move to another destruction on public safety here. For years San Diego has been losing police officers at an alarming rate. Other cities offer better pay. That looks to have changed this week and an agreement between the police officer unit in the city.

AB: Four consecutive raises about six months apart in age and the first one will be in July of next year and that is because of proposition B. Once it expires they can get their raises and some were already negotiated in the previous contract. It's an acknowledgment by the city that the previous contract had not done enough to keep officers in the department.

MS: We talked about the on the show before.

AB: They are losing a dozen a month and they have been for quite some time. Right now, we have 1800 officers on the force and that is 239 short of what's been budgeted and it's also less than we have last year. Not only are we not keeping up with our goals, but we are losing. We’re having a net loss each year.

ASJ: Most are due to retire.

AB: That is right. A third of the police officers are available for retirement. That has the consequence of depleting the police force and if we manage -- many are probably going to be rookies with less experience.

LW: The question that I have and I think you probably have asked this how are they going to pay for this and what about all the other union employees?

AB: That is a big question. The estimated cost is $66 million. Just this year we had a huge discussion over the budget and budget cuts that are necessary because of long-term pension cost. We had to cut $81 million from the budget without any police raises this year so how are we going to deal with this next year? I did not get an answer from the mayor.

MS: We have that.

AB: How was the city going to pay for these pay increases?

Mayor: You make it a priority and that is a very clear message that public safety is our number one priority.

MS: At some point, you're going to have to fight this below the belt.

AB: It is the number one priority in I think for most San Diegans but of course you have to make it very difficult decisions. The city has a lot of priorities. So far, the mayor has not shown any appetite for raising taxes or fees there might be some money in it from the marijuana tax that will be coming next year so the general fund will get some extra revenue from that.

ASJ: Something I noticed because we have to think about the pension costs.

AB: It will. I think that is something that may be -- I haven't heard any numbers from the city about how much these raises could affect the long-term pension cost, but it certainly well.

LC: How does San Diego PD compare in terms of salary?

AB: They gave money for -- they commissioned a study of exactly that how much the officers are making compared to other departments. That has not been finalized yet. We don't have the results of that. We could be more targeted and how much experience. I asked the mayor that and he said in some cases 30 to 40% below. So, it's not an easy problem to solve and I don't suspect that these raises will get rid of the problem altogether.

LW: What this goes back to is the city not that many years ago was on the brink of bankruptcy and because they underfunded their pension system to pay for salary increases and other things in the city that they wanted. I think as taxpayers may be wondering the same question. Are you putting us on the hook for something that you have no reasonable way to pay for and as you said tax increases don't get past year.

AB: It's a really tough thing for the mayor and for the city Council. I want to bring this back to the fires. San Diego has a huge gap in fire safety funded. There is a report that came out that found that $91 million is needed that the city does not have to fund the construction of new fire stations. So, these are the priorities and the cuts that the city is going to have to decide whether to make.

ASJ: I wanted to make this a significance because I've heard people in other cities comparing what other police departments make. So, if the city of San Diego ups the ante that's going to have a ripple effect.

MS: Very briefly what are they going to take this up?

AB: The union is voting on it currently and they need approval, so hopefully this year.

MS: The does wrap up another week of stories at the KPBS Roundtable. I would like to say thank you to my guest Laura Wingard, Alison St John, Leng Caloh, and Andrew Bowen of kpbs. All the stories we discussed today are available on our website I'm Mark Sauer. Thank you for joining us today on the Roundtable.