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Public Safety

Growing Traffic Increases Fire Department Response Times In San Diego

San Diego Fire and Rescue Department Truck 10 sits in a fire station garage.

Worsening traffic congestion in San Diego is increasing fire department response times, according to a report delivered to the City Council's Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee Wednesday.

The presentation from the consultant Citygate Associates was a follow-up to a 2010 study that quantified the need for more fire stations and determined which locations were most urgent.

According to the update, an analysis found that during normal traffic periods, only 74 percent of the city's public streets were within 5 minutes travel time of an active fire station. Five-minute coverage at morning and afternoon commute hours was reduced to 51 percent of roadways.

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Only 6 percent of city streets were quickly reachable during commute hours for first-alarm responses in which multiple units have to travel across larger sections of the city, the report said. That's even though the first- alarm standard is three minutes longer.

The report's authors said that in order to put out small fires or treat medical patients, units in 90 percent of cases should reach the scene within 7 1/2 minutes of when the 911 call is received. That equates to one minute for dispatching, 1 1/2 minutes to load into vehicles and 5 minutes to drive to a scene.

Department-wide, the average response time was 8 minutes and 10 seconds, according to the report. Only one of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department's seven battalions — serving downtown — beat the 7 1/2-minute standard, while another comes within two seconds.

The average response time for Battalion 5 in La Jolla and University City was 9 minutes and 19 seconds, the report says.

Stewart Gary of Citygate said Battalion 5 serves a widespread area, prompting a recommendation to add three more battalion command regions in the city.

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Citygate found that none of the battalions met the 5-minute expected driving time, with the average being 6 minutes, 9 seconds. Battalion 5's average travel time to a scene was 7 minutes, 18 seconds.

Other issues affecting driving times were a rapidly increasing number of medical aids, which tie up manpower when multiple calls come in, requiring firefighters to respond from other neighborhoods; and measures that slow vehicles down, such as traffic circles, Gary said.

Alan Arrollado, president of the firefighters union, said the volume of calls to the SDFRD has nearly doubled in 15 years.

"We have not added the resources to deal with it," Arrollado said. "As we grow, the city has become harder and harder to protect."

The consultants offered several other recommendations, including to continue closing coverage gaps as funds permit, provide equitable response times to neighborhoods at similar risk, maintain the 5-minute travel time goal, and to deploy peak-time engine companies and so-called "Fast Response Squads."

The squads are two-firefighter units designed to reach a scene before the main response, in order to assess the situation or begin rescues and medical aids. They've been deployed successfully in Encanto and University City.

Gary said improving coverage will not only include building more fire stations, but also adding more mobile units.

At the committee's request, a representative of the city's Independent Budget Analyst's Office said they would conduct a full fiscal analysis of the Citygate report.