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"Brownouts" Slow Fire Department Response To Choking Toddler

"Brownouts" Slow Fire Department Response To Choking Toddler
How are fire station "brownouts" affecting the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department's ability to respond to life-threatening emergencies? We speak to reporter Alison St. John about how the "brownouts" might have played a role in the death of a Mira Mesa toddler.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar says he doesn't know, and no one knows for sure if a 2-year-old Mira Mesa boy might have been saved. But what he can say is that the fire department's response time to the toddler's choking incident Tuesday night was longer than usual because of the cost-cutting brownout program. KPBS senior metro reporter Alison St John is covering the story. She joins us now. Good morning, Alison.

ALISON ST JOHN (KPBS Senior Metro Reporter): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Can you give us a rundown of what happened to little Bentley Do on Tuesday night?


ST JOHN: So he was apparently trying a gumball that a member of the family had bought for older members of the children and choked on it, and his family called 911 at 8:30 and the police department did arrive, according to the police, within five minutes and he was already suffering terribly and they administered CPR. The fire department with a paramedic on the engine—and they are very well trained for this kind of situation and have actual equipment—did not arrive until nine and a half minutes after the 911 call, according to the fire department. And they also administered CPR, were unable to revive him, took him to Scripps Mercy Hospital in La Jolla, where he was pronounced dead a little more than an hour later.

CAVANAUGH: Now why – what we’ve been reporting, Alison, what you’ve been reporting is that there is a fire station only about a block away from the child’s house. So why did it take 10 minutes for firefighters and paramedics to get there?

ST JOHN: Yes, and that is really the irony of this situation. The reason is because of the policies that the fire department has had to adopt to respond to needs for budget cuts at the City. They’ve developed a strategy whereby they what they say is brownout, they actually deactivate certain fire engines and then that means that crews at certain fire stations have to double up and cover the areas that normally would have been covered by those crews that are deactivated. And in this particular case, the crew that was in the fire station just down the street was out covering another emergency and was not available and as a result they had to bring in a truck from the South Bay.

CAVANAUGH: Now, it sounds like Mira Mesa is one of the communities that the fire department is most concerned about with relation to brownouts. Why is that?

ST JOHN: Well, the system that they’ve worked out, Maureen, is that there would be – they’re trying to make this as fair as possible for everybody in the city. And they have 47 stations, 47 fire trucks, and 12 or 13 of them actually have – I beg your pardon, not fire trucks, fire engines and there is a distinction because the engines are the ones that have all the equipment. And there’s only 12 or 13 that have an engine and a truck. So what they’ve done is they’ve done on a rotating basis, 8 of those stations will lose the use of an engine. Now, Mira Mesa is one of three stations that is not actually part of that rotation. They just don’t have that engine all the time. So the fire chief is saying he will look at the situation yet again. This is something that was put into place in February. As you can imagine, he has been poring over all the possible ways of responding to the need for budget cuts and this was the best way to preserve public safety that he could come up with but, as he said, if you have only 87% of your resources, is the way he put it, then you’re not going to be able to get to all the places on time. And, of course, we know that the fire department has already been struggling. There have been national accreditation standards that say that San Diego is 22 fire stations short. But the budget cuts meant that he had to find a way to reduce staffing, to reduce overtime costs, and these brownouts are the way that he – and he still feels, really, that there’s very little more tweaking he can do to avoid this – situations like this.


CAVANAUGH: We do have that sound clip from Chief Mainar. He spoke to the press about this incident. Here’s what he had to say.

JAVIER MAINAR (Fire Chief, City of San Diego): We’ve looked at this a million different ways but the bottom line is this: When you’re chasing 100% of your calls with only 87% of the resources you formerly had, it’s going to take us longer to get somewhere. Sometimes you can redistribute the pain a little bit but we feel we have the most efficient distribution right now.

CAVANAUGH: That’s San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar. And, Alison, you were talking about some national studies, some national consultants who’ve been brought in to look at the situation here in San Diego, and I believe that the national standard for fire departments is to respond to 90% of calls within 5 minutes. Do we know what percentage of time the San Diego Fire Department hits that goal?

ST JOHN: They just don’t meet that goal. They get as close as they can but I think it’s more like in the 60, 70% range. And so bearing in mind that they’re dealing with financial constraints, they do the best they can. And, I mean, it is worth noting that in this case the police were able to get there within that five minute window and administer CPR and still that was not enough for this child. So it does remain an open question as to, you know, whether getting there in five minutes as the national standards require would have saved the child’s life. But, you know, the fire chief himself was saying that he regretted the fact that he could not get there on time. He, himself, with his own children would want that five minute window for his family. And so, you know, it’s hard for him. I mean, he was obviously very much regretting the fact that these cuts are not enabling him to do the job he would like to be able to do.

CAVANAUGH: Well, where does the city fire department go from here, Alison? Is there any indication that they plan to reexamine this brownout plan?

ST JOHN: Yes, they do report back to the City Public Safety Committee every month he said, and there’s another meeting of that next week and they will go over this incident again. And, of course, they’re going to examine everything again and reconsider all the issues. He said Mira Mesa is one of the communities that he has heard most complaints from. They are one of the ones that don’t get this rotating brownout, they just have to deal with it all the time. And so he’s going to look and see if there’s any other way of tweaking it. But, as he says, he doesn’t see a lot of different options here.

CAVANAUGH: Now there is a discussion going on in the City about potential half-cent sales tax increase. How does that issue play into this story?

ST JOHN: Well, that is why the timing of this is really so interesting, Maureen, because one of the arguments that the city council members are making is that the only way, really, that they can see to restore services to police and fire that has been cut recently is to increase revenues. They have cut – they’ve made a lot of cuts throughout the city and so they’re saying now it’s time to just consider, at least consider, the option of increasing revenues. And so that decision was made yesterday to take it to the city council to see whether the city council would agree to put that to the voters and let the voters decide, you know, have we seen enough cuts in our services? Do we feel that the City has done enough reforms, reorganization, increased efficiencies, looking again at how to deal with the pension deficit, that we are comfortable to say, yes, we will vote for a, I’m not sure how much, but a sales tax increase in the city of San Diego. So that is an enormous issue that’s taking up – burning up a lot of political oxygen at the moment. And this particular incident really highlights the dramatic life and death choices that these kinds of questions entail.

CAVANAUGH: Now the two-year-old’s death is, of course, a terrible tragedy for the family, the community. I know that the police officers and firefighters that responded to this scene are really broken up about it. But do we have any clear indication that this child would have been saved if the brownouts didn’t exist?

ST JOHN: No, that is definitely not a certainty, Maureen. It really is true to say that in this particular situation, it’s possible even if they had not had a brownout, even if the fire truck had been right there, it’s possible that the child would not have been saved. However, nobody can know for sure and it’s that uncertainty that remains, you know, such a question.

CAVANAUGH: Alison, if you’ll hang on with us for just a second. We have a caller on the line. Michelle is calling from Encinitas. Good morning, Michelle, and welcome to These Days.

MICHELLE (Caller, Encinitas): Thank you so much for taking my call. I wanted to make two comments and one of them being this just makes so crucial the need for parents and anyone dealing with children to take a CPR class. They’re offered at many local fire departments through the Red Cross, some community centers, etcetera. And then the other issue, too, so often I, when I’m out on the road, and I will see emergency vehicles trying to get cars to move over and they don’t. You know, cars, they may not hear the sirens but so often I see people just trying to speed ahead rather than moving over. And, you know, whether or not this would’ve made a difference, but in some cases seconds do count.

CAVANAUGH: Michelle…

MICHELLE: So those are the two issues that I wanted to…

CAVANAUGH: And very practical issues indeed.

ST JOHN: Mmm, yes.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Michelle, for calling and reminding us.

ST JOHN: That was one of the issues that Chief Mainar did make yesterday is that he would really urge all parents to learn those skills so that the initial emergency response is something that they can do because, you know, it’s not high tech but it can sometimes save a life. And he really said that he would like to see that be something families would consider, is learning CPR. And, I mean, I think this whole situation also kind of highlights that fire departments are not just about fires, and we’ve been worried about cuts to fire departments because of the risk of fire in our community but it’s often the case that actually far more frequently than being called to fires, they’re being called for health emergencies. And so that’s another life and death situation where, you know, those cuts are affecting the community.

CAVANAUGH: Alison, thank you so much.

ST JOHN: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with KPBS senior metro reporter Alison St John. If you would like to comment, please go online, Now when we return after this break, we’ll discuss one way cities and public safety agencies in San Diego are hoping they can uncover some new funds and that’s by making the county share Prop 172 sales tax revenue. We’ll be talking about that and taking your calls after this break. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.