Study Examines Opportunities For Improving Region's Fire Service
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. People who lived through the last two major wildfires in San Diego County remember what it's like having fires rage out of control. We live in a region were the danger of wildfire is a yearly—and some would say year-round—threat, so our ability to fight fires is a community priority. But according to a new study, our community firefighting effort is suffering from some major gaps. Joining me now to talk about the new Regional Fire Services Deployment Study are my guests. Stewart Gary, he has 35 years experience in the fire service, including 5 years as a paramedic. He is principal investigator with Citygate Associates, a nationwide fire consulting firm, which conducted the study. And, Stewart, welcome to These Days.
STEWART GARY (Principal Investigator, Citygate Associates): Good morning. Thank you for listening this morning.
CAVANAUGH: Chief Augie Ghio is with me. He’s San Miguel Fire Chief and president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association. Chief Ghio, welcome back.
AUGUST GHIO (President, San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association): Thank you. Glad to be here again.
CAVANAUGH: We invite our listeners to join the conversation. How prepared do you think San Diego is for the next wildfire? Would you pay more in taxes for better fire protection? Or is there another way to pay for increased fire protection? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Stewart Gary, this report of yours is called the Regional Fire Services Deployment Study. What is a deployment study?
GARY: It’s a baseline assessment of what risks are present in all of the communities in the county, which are quite diverse and large, of course. What – where the fire stations are, how they’re staffed, how they’re equipped. And fire service deployment is customer service literally at the street level. It’s sending the men and the women on the right equipment in the right timeframe to the emergency that’s been called in. And it’s the baseline. Logistical support, headquarters, fleet maintenance, training, everything feeds frontline customer service which is boots on the ground going to the emergency.
CAVANAUGH: And when the county came to you what did they want to know about fire services in San Diego County?
GARY: Well, after much discussion, after, of course, the two fire storms, multiple county studies on reorganizing different fire agencies and the revenue headache, it became apparent that there was no universal baseline countywide for what we have, what gaps, if any, exist and where a desirable outcome needs to be from a deployment perspective. And from that, we can calculate backwards the level of effort to increase the service level if necessary, modify it in other locations and then support that and sustain that service level. So this became the foundational study. It did not look at every nuance of every agency, 50-plus agencies. That would be an incredible job. So it primarily focused, again, on street level deployment, key supporting issues to support that deployment such as training, aircraft resources for wildland fire attack and then it took a less detailed look at the issues like fleet apparatus maintenance, fire prevention, for example. Fire prevention programs are very critical. The study was not focused in depth on how best to deliver those. It was mainly the street deployment.
CAVANAUGH: How do you conduct a study like this? How do you actually do the research?
GARY: Well, it’s interesting and it evolved over the last decade of computer tools. And in the old days in the fire service, literally a hundred years ago, the insuring service office plotted the spacing of fire stations a mile and a half apart because that was the distance a team of horses could pull a fire steamer at full gallop without exhaustion. And our industry really used mile and a half spacing for about 75 years until geographic mapping tools came into play and we could model virtual fire truck travel over the street networks, so nowadays we build a math model that literally virtually drives the fire stations over the road network. The model is sensitive to terrain, topography, one-way streets, freeway interchanges, and in the case of the San Diego study, we received prior incident response data from a little over half a million incidents over three years and we used the actual prior history travel times to calibrate the computer geographic model.
CAVANAUGH: I see.
GARY: So we have a pretty good predictive model of where and what travel times should be. And then we also used all those response statistics to look regionwide and by quadrant of the county what prior customer service was or was not delivered.
CAVANAUGH: Now there are 50 fire agencies in San Diego County. Did you send out questionnaires to all of them?
GARY: Yes, to all the local government agencies. 54 agencies responded to a mammoth online questionnaire. They answered dozens of questions both about their deployment, also their organization, their staffing, their fiscal status, so thousands of answers were received. And the County now has, really, the first ever large dataset about all of the public agency fire departments. The only departments that did not participate in the online study were the military fire departments just given their unique governance and fiscal support from the Department of Defense.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Stewart Gary. He’s principal investigator with Citygate Associates, a nationwide fire consulting firm, which just conducted a study of San Diego’s fire services deployment. And also with me, Chief Augie Ghio of the San Miguel Fire – he is San Miguel Fire Chief and president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association. We’re taking your calls about this new fire study and about San Diego fire preparedness, 1-888-895-5727. Okay, so, Stewart, here come the questions about the report. What are the challenges that this study found that face San Diego County Fire Departments?
GARY: I’d like to characterize it by saying—and I agree with one of the supervisors in the public meeting last week—that the glass, depending on your perspective, is more like two-thirds full. After two devastating firestorms, everybody assumed that there were catastrophic things wrong with the fire deployment system, that fragmentation, i.e. 50 agencies meant that there was an ineffective response. And we really found the opposite. There is increased coordination between all the agencies. Most – many of the communities, both cities and fire district departments, have very good response times and while there are gaps, those gaps can be improved over time as the economy and public finances allow. So there’s really not a destitute need for a mammoth fix to the street level fire deployment system. The challenges San Diego County faces, and in addition to just their current recession, is the terrain and topography. San Diego County’s not flat Kansas with a checkerboard grid street network, all right-angle turns, very economical to serve for fire truck travel times. San Diego County is really bisected by the canyons, the mesas, the terrain that goes from the mountains down to the ocean. And it’s very, very expensive to serve efficiently with – for fire truck travel times.
CAVANAUGH: How does our terrain factor into the study’s recommendation that San Diego needs 14 more fire stations?
GARY: We looked at the national best practice advice that to keep small fires small in buildings and to keep emergency medical patients treated and stabilized, and in life threatening situations moved to the hospital, that the first due fire unit should arrive at the emergency location within about 7 minutes of the time of call 90% of the time. And that’s from the time 9-1-1 is called. So in that 7 minutes, there’s 3 components. The dispatch center has to understand what you’re saying as an emergency caller, notify the proper unit to respond, the crew in the station or out in the field has to understand what they’re being asked to go do, don the proper protective clothing, get the unit moving, and then there’s driving time. So the driving time component we measured consistent with national thinking is 4 minutes driving time from a fire station. That’s a little more, by the way, than the old insurance service mile and a half figure. And when we looked at the four minute coverage countywide, in many of the challenging canyon-mesa areas it was difficult to deliver to 90% or better of the road network. And depending on the area of the county, that measure was somewhere in the 70, low 80th percentile of road coverage. And when we looked at the 5th minute of coverage, one more travel minute, the percent of increase jumped way up to the high 80 percentile. So we then looked for fire station gap areas. We looked for neighborhoods that were beyond the fifth minute of driving time that were the size of an entire missing fire station area, so we’re not talking about five homes on a dead-end cul de sac but we’re talking about hundreds or thousands of units in an area that would be the size of a normal first fire station area. And we found those gaps in both North County and in the City of San Diego in the southwest region where additional fire stations would be necessary to completely cover the urban road miles at 90% of the time by the fifth minute of travel. So I know that’s a lot of complicated…
GARY: …math but we’re trying to design a system that gives effective customer service outcomes at a travel time that’s reasonable for the tax base to provide and balance the two factors, so four-minute driving time if that model were built out to cover 90% of the geography would be cost prohibitive for the small number of calls for service—additional calls for service—it would pick up because the system’s really doing fairly well today and we just need to improve those small gap areas over time. And that’s what I want to stress is, there are many communities, especially the core older, built-up communities, downtown San Diego, downtown Oceanside, you know, downtown El Cajon, they have very good response times today. They’re meeting best practice thinking and standards in the core communities. San Diego County, like many of my clients in California and across the U.S., as suburban sprawl occurred, the spacing of fire stations became thinner and thinner.
CAVANAUGH: Certainly, yes. Yes. Let me ask Chief Ghio, Stewart Gary has just given us a very technical breakdown of what it takes to have, you know, to determine where a fire station should be and if a community has too few fire stations because of the response time involved, is this – did you go into this, however, as head of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association, kind of knowing that San Diego needed some more fire stations?
GHIO: Oh, yes, we did. Remember, my background came from the City of San Diego where I spent almost 30 years so we had, over a period of time and over a few fire chiefs, done some studies within the city to determine how many more fire stations we needed. And, on a countywide basis, a lot of jurisdictions would like more boots on the ground or response assets. Stewart brought up the issue. It’s really the return on the investment; how much are the citizens willing to pay for an appropriate level of response? And then you have to define it. That’s what this study really does for us and it’s that blueprint to where each individual agency now can say based on my local needs, my local funds, my growth issues, where should I be? How could I get there? What would it take to fund it? And start to develop those plans and prioritize it. But, yes, we know we need more fire stations in San Diego County but, Stewart, I’d like you to jump in on this one, too. Part of the study also alludes to the fact that maybe we have to take a look at, in the future, a different response configuration. Maybe the type of service we’re providing today has to morph into something else in the future that would better meet the demands. 73% or 78% of our responses are medical aids. Does the current response configuration, considering more growth, meet that need in the future? Stew?
CAVANAUGH: Stewart Gary?
CAVANAUGH: Would you like to respond?
GARY: It’s an interesting question and one that both elected officials and the communities will have to have a policy discussion and make a philosophical shift. The current fire deployment system in the United States is based on fixed location, 24 hours a day staffing. However, many of those stations have very few calls for service per day, per week or per month. But it was considered to be an equity issue, that every neighborhood ought to be within arms reach of their neighborhood fire station. The latest thinking, driven by the economy, is a more demand-based deployment where we’ll actually concentrate more firefighters at peak hours of the day in highly populated areas where there are more calls for service. And those could be done on different types of units with different spacing, not even necessarily located in fire stations. So that’s the shifting we’re seeing now in the economy, Chief Ghio, is to go to demand-based deployment, peak hours-based deployment and not have as many resources on duty at slow times of the day, the week or the month cycle. The downside is, is fire’s a random event.
GARY: And public officials have to understand that if they staff for the EMS peak hour call volumes at three o’clock Wednesday afternoon when rush hour traffic is starting to build and generate auto accidents, that most deadly home fires are in the middle of the night because they start unnoticed and get serious before someone’s awakened and can call the fire department. So its’ going to be a tough balancing act but we’ll see a shift to demand-based deployment and answering the most calls with the resources we have available.
CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break and when we come back, we will continue our conversation about this new Regional Fire Services Deployment Study and find out what more fire stations might do to help San Diego County with its next firestorm. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call if you’d like to join the conversation. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re talking about the new Regional Fire Services Deployment Study issued for San Diego County. Stewart Gary was principal investigator on that study, and Chief Augie Ghio is San Miguel fire chief and president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association. We’re taking your calls about how prepared San Diego is for the next wildfire. The number here is 1-888-895-5727. Chief Ghio, when we talk about the region requiring 14 more fire stations at a cost of about $92 million, I think the question that might come to mind is, well, how will – how would that help us when we have our next wildfire?
GHIO: It would help us to some degree because it would give us more boots on the ground response resources at the time we need it. So 14 more fire stations would give us almost three more strike teams available in the San Diego region. At the local level, what the communities that would require these have to think of is, is it worth the return on the investment? Am I gaining enough efficiency in road miles covered or response time improvements to warrant that expense and have I got the money to do it?
CAVANAUGH: Of these recommendations, the consolidation of the fire dispatch centers from 5 to 2, more training, more consolidation of agencies, which of them, Chief Ghio, do you find to be crucial that we really implement before we face another wildfire?
GHIO: Well, the reality is, is that we can’t implement all of them probably before the next wildfire because it could happen this season. But I think it’s real important for the County Fire Chiefs, for all the agencies throughout San Diego County, to work with the County Board of Supervisors to identify and prioritize which ones of these will be actionable items, develop an implementation and possibly a funding plan, and then track our progress on that into the future so that this really important blueprint towards the future doesn’t become a dust collector. I think that there are really three areas we have to look at. On a regional basis, I think it’s very important to work on consolidating the dispatch centers and possibly even the training functions because the more we can get some efficiency and cost effectiveness in dispatch centers and training, the better we’re going to be able to serve the first responders out there. On a regional level, if we can independently, with surrounding jurisdictions, look at shared services agreements such as North County has done between Rancho Santa Fe and some of the other units up there, Solana Beach, Del Mar, Encinitas, and what El Cajon, La Mesa and Lemon Grove have done, we need to keep working towards that. And then at the local level, what can be immediately implemented is improving our response times, taking a look at what we’ve got, where we need to improve our chute times, how fast our firefighters are getting into the turnouts, our dispatch times, how to improve those and bring down that processing time so that we can gain that efficiency. We – Some agencies may be able to pick up 30 seconds or a minute right there with no additional response resources. So there’s some low-hanging fruit and then there’s some mid- and longer-term planning that needs to be done.
CAVANAUGH: Let me take a phone call. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Jeanne is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Jeanne, and welcome to These Days.
JEANNE (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. My question is why we haven’t partnered with the military, which is a strong presence in San Diego, and used their helicopters to dump the water and why we even need helicopters with them around because they are very present.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that call. And I’m going to give that to you, Chief Ghio.
GHIO: Okay. Jeanne, that’s a real good question. We have agreements through CAL FIRE with the military. We have crosstrained with CAL FIRE for those rotary wing helicopter assets. However, remember the main mission of the military is the defense of the country so they may or may not be available immediately when we need them, if at all. So it’s real important to have strong, adequate local resources for that air support because we do need rotary wing. We may even need fixed wing. This study doesn’t really address the needs; it’s – it addresses the consolidation of the services that we’ve got for support functions. Stew, would you agree with that?
GARY: Yes, and it’s an example of something that sounds very easy but ends up being technically complicated if not dangerous to do simply and quickly. The study had a chapter on aerial firefighting, air resources and helicopter programs and included several pages on coordination with the military. And the headache is, the military ships, even if they’re modified to be able to drop water or fire retardant, the crews rotate between overseas deployment and San Diego bases fairly frequently. So just as CAL FIRE and San Diego City helicopter crews and the sheriff train their military counterparts, they may only have them for half of one fire season and then they rotate out on another deployment and that training cycle with the military has to start again. The military radios are different. The military pilots have to be trained how to fly in the hot updrafts, that hot air coming off a fire is dangerous. Dropping water near firefighters on the ground is dangerous. So there’s a training component there that is just a chronic headache to keep the military up to speed with. However, the local government agencies do do that training and the military is committed to it, it’s just not a singular solution. So Chief Ghio is right, the local government agencies also need their trained firefighting helicopter pilots available year-round in the climate of San Diego and not be solely dependent on the military.
CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 or you can post your comments online at KPBS.org/thesedays. Erik is calling from San Diego. And good morning, Erik. Welcome to These Days.
ERIK (Caller, San Diego): Good morning, Maureen. How are you?
CAVANAUGH: Quite well, thank you.
ERIK: Good, good. I wanted to ask your guests—and this is Erik Bruvold from the National University System—and we did a report last year that showed San Diego lags significantly behind Orange County and Los Angeles County on per capita fire expenditure. And, in addition, San Diego’s got many more departments with all the overhead that’s involved. So isn’t this really a call that once again we need to look at consolidation and upping the resources on – at least if we benchmark against LA and Orange County?
CAVANAUGH: Let me start with Chief Ghio on that.
GHIO: Well, first off, Erik, yes, we do need to do more to consolidate resources and improve our ability to respond to the community needs countywide. But I think one thing that comes out very clearly in this report from Citygate is that we actually do a pretty darn good job. We actually collaborate, communicate and cooperate very well when we have the large scale regional disasters or fires and we actually come together pretty seamlessly as one organization. But as the study does report, and it validates the LAFCO micro- and macro-reports that were done a few years ago, we do need to work towards consolidation and unifying this county and emergency services for fire and EMS. That is, long term, the best solution for San Diego County.
CAVANAUGH: And Stewart Gary, before you respond, I want to just throw in the idea that Los Angeles and Orange Counties, they both have actual county fire departments with firefighters and a traditional command structure. How do you think, if you do, that San Diego might benefit from that kind of a county fire department?
GARY: This is Stewart Gary. Two points to respond. First, Erik, generally Erik’s question is spot on and, yes, consolidations will yield, if not economic savings, operational efficiencies. For example, you might find two rural, east county fire agencies that have insufficient leadership and training staff but by putting them together you don’t necessarily save dollars but you now have a more effective, safer organization. So those issues have to be pursued, as do consolidation and communication centers. We took the budgets of all the agencies and rolled them up and today in San Diego County, not counting the military but including CAL FIRE, there’s $517 million—$517 million—being spent annually in the county on fire protection. And there are 460 primary engines, ladder trucks and specialty units staffed every day with over 914 career firefighters. That is a significant force. Yes, it’s fragmented across multiple agencies. Yes, it goes from four-person crew staffing in downtown urban San Diego to, hopefully, one or two volunteers on a rig way out in the rural eastern mountain or desert areas. Los Angeles County started in the late 1950s with a countywide system and a countywide tax base that is separate from the general fund of that county. The devil in the details now in California where the counties do not have large singular agencies is how do you get the individual agencies to agree to merge a portion of their existing tax revenues to fund joint fire services? And under the California Constitution and Government Code, there is no one entity, including the legislature, that can force a local city to give up its fire department and merge it into a larger whole. So they tend to be a ‘one-two-three at a time’ cooperative venture, either through contracts or joint powers associations, and you gradually build up larger and larger fire departments. There’s just not going to be a quick way to convert San Diego County and get 17 cities and several dozen fire districts to morph all into one. The second answer to the question, which is also difficult because Los Angeles voters have been paying into a countywide tax base for decades. A voter in one community understands they’re paying into the collective good. But if you were to form a San Diego County agency and merge the taxation today in order to fix the gaps, if I’m a Carlsbad voter why do I want to tax myself more to fix 10 or 11 missing fire stations in the City of San Diego? So there’s going to be a very difficult conversation between what is the regional base amount that every voter ought to pay for the common protection and where individual communities are short resources and ought to be raising those revenues themselves.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Wayne is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Wayne, and welcome to These Days.
WAYNE (Caller, San Diego): Yes, good morning. For a change, you’ve got two excellent folks here. Gary is absolutely right, the devil is in the details. And Ghio, I want to emphasize his comment that this thing should not become a dust collector. I did the 1970 study of a similar nature but nowhere near as good as this one, and not just because of the better technology, I will admit. But the big issue here, the elephant in the room, is that when these firestorms get too big for the resources, they’ve got to stand back and work the flanks. They just cannot fight these firestorms that are moving under 40, 50 mile an hour winds or better. And the – They are absolutely right about the response time. So as an old Air Force SAC man, I want to say that one possibility they want to consider is to get aircraft in the air at critical times so they can hit these fires while they’re small. Otherwise, it’s irrelevant to the firestorm much as we need these improved response times.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for your call. Would you like to respond?
GHIO: Yes, I would. This is Augie Ghio, again. Wayne, excellent, excellent perspective. It is critical to have a blend of air resources and ground resources attacking a fire, and our goal is to keep fires to 10 acres or less 90% of the time in this county and we’ve done a pretty good job on it. When you look at an average of 1000 wildfire starts a year in San Diego County and we’ve only had two, and they were catastrophic, the 2003 and 2007 in recent history, that really got out of control. CAL FIRE and all the local agencies have done a pretty good job at achieving the goal. The issue is that without partnerships, without more dollars and aerial support of the proper configuration, we just can’t really match that air attack at the local level because, remember, although CAL FIRE does have air assets locally in San Diego County and Southern California, the fires generally start north of the San Diego line and those resources most of the time are shifted north of San Diego to fight those fires first, so we’re without those state resources. So we need to build up local air assets, not just ground resources, and that’s a cost. Now a real interesting point is San Diego Gas & Electric and Sempra Energy have partnering through the County Fire Chiefs Association and County Office of Emergency Services to make a heavy-lift, type 1 helicopter available with heavy water drop capability this next fire season just like they did last fire season. So we’re actually looking outside the box in how to provide some of that. And the County of San Diego a few years ago did the super scoopers and they’ve made some dollars available again for a call when needed contract. So little by little, we’re improving those air resources.
CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, Chief Ghio, the County Board of Supervisors adopted this study and they sent it off for about four months to be studied for implementation, how these recommendations could actually take effect. Are you being consulted during that time of implementation? Is anybody from the County going to come to you and say what should we do first?
GHIO: Yes, they are. And I have to give it to all the board of supervisors. Ron Lane and especially Dianne Jacob, they, even in the development of this report, they brought together firefighters – fire chiefs from throughout the County of San Diego including the tribal fire chiefs, to have input into what would be the deliverables. The next step is to bring a similar group together and talk about the actionable items, the priorities, the implementation plan, the funding strategy, and then how we’re going to report on our progress.
CAVANAUGH: I wanted to ask you finally, Stewart, if I may, I know that this study was done before the City of San Diego began implementing brownouts around – in fire stations around the city. Can you speculate about how the brownouts might have played into the study findings? What do you think that that’s doing to response times?
GARY: Well, certainly in the neighborhoods that are closed today, the response times are longer because the unit has to – another unit has to travel from much further away to cover the call. I can’t speculate on the overall impacts. Most brownout plans, and I was not consulted on San Diego’s, take the slowest fire companies out of service and try to spread that pain across the system so you don’t take your busiest, highest call volume unit out of service. You pick a slower unit and then you try to rotate that pain around the slower, quieter neighborhoods. And, again, we’re back to equity. Do you have neighborhood equal access or do you get the most calls for service answered by the people you do, in fact, have available today? And that’s very appropriately what the City’s chosen to do. They only have so many dollars so they’re going to answer the most calls for service with the dollars they have available.
CAVANAUGH: Stewart Gary and Chief Augie Ghio, I want to thank you both so much for speaking with us today. Thanks a lot.
GHIO: Thank you.
GARY: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And if you didn’t get a chance to have your call on air, please do place your comment online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, a legal update on local campaign finance laws, that’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.