Fire Response Study Presented To City Council, 11 Months After Completion
The San Diego City Council on Tuesday heard a report detailing longstanding shortcomings in the Fire-Rescue Department's emergency response times, nearly a year after the report was completed.
The report by Citygate Associates followed a 2010 report by the same consulting firm. Both reports found that the Fire-Rescue Department would need several new stations throughout the city in order to meet its response time goals.
Those goals are for emergency responders to arrive within seven and a half minutes of the 911 call being received, 90 percent of the time. The department-wide average arrival time was eight minutes and 10 seconds, the study found.
Fire-rescue officials told the council that getting a fire station built — including land acquisition, design, environmental review and construction — takes around five years. In practice it can be longer if the city does not have the money or staff capacity to dedicate to all those steps.
Councilman David Alvarez was part of a committee that reviewed the 2010 Citygate report, which came in the depths of the Great Recession as the city was having to cut its budget rather than expand it with new funding for fire stations.
"We've had this discussion seven years ago, and now we're having this discussion again, and we'll be having it again seven years from now because we might not have made any progress," Alvarez said at the Tuesday meeting. "And that's the part that is sort of a little bit frustrating."
The updated report was completed in February 2017 and presented to the council's committee on public safety the following month. A follow-up study by the Independent Budget Analyst's Office was completed in April 2017 but never got a hearing at the City Council until Tuesday.
The IBA's report found the city would need to spend about $91 million building new fire stations and about $18.7 million in annual operating costs to fully implement the study's recommendations. Neighborhoods with a need for new fire stations but no plans or funding to build them include Pacific Beach, southern University City, Torrey Hills/southern Carmel Valley and northeastern Encanto. Some neighborhoods in the city are also being served by temporary stations, which can operate out of single-family homes or business storefronts.
The IBA and Fire-Rescue Department also proposed an alternative to building only brick-and-mortar fire stations: deploying roaming fire engines to certain parts of the city during peak hours. That proposal would be cheaper and allow the department to serve the highest-need areas with more flexibility, but it was not recommended as a long-term solution to the city's fire safety needs.
In 2016, then-City Councilwoman Marti Emerald proposed asking voters for a property tax increase that would fund new fire station construction. The measure never made it to the ballot, and Emerald accused the mayor's office of trying to orchestrate a vote-swapping scheme she says she refused to participate in.
Councilwoman Lorie Zapf initially supported Emerald's proposal, but ultimately voted against it. In casting her "no" vote, she said she was working on an alternative proposal to build new fire stations and repair existing public safety facilities without raising taxes. Zapf never presented such a proposal to the council or the public.
Emerald also suggested the most recent Citygate report was an attempt by the mayor's office to cast doubt on the need for her firehouse bond proposal, and to provide political cover for opposing it. As long as there was a pending study with updated information, she said, the Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Republican council members could argue it was not the right time to raise taxes to fund new fire stations.
"This was politics above the needs of the people of San Diego," Emerald said in a 2016 interview on her measure's failure. "And in this case, their government failed them."
The most recent report indeed found that worsening traffic congestion in San Diego was hurting fire response times and that the city still needed to build more fire stations to meet its goals, though the locations with the greatest need have changed. Traffic congestion has grown worse as more people own cars and drive longer distances to get to work.