January 27, 2010 – The City of San Diego will begin a rotation next week that will reduce the number of fire crews at about a quarter of its stations. a move that is expected to save $11.5 million annually but leave some neighborhoods without units capable of extinguishing a fire.
The brown-out plan — in which stations with multiple crews will be reduced to a single crew on a rotating basis — was a key piece of the budget cuts approved by the City Council last month to close a $179 million budget deficit. Most of the cuts focused on quality-of-life issues, such as beach maintenance, but the fire changes could have real life-or-death consequences.
The Fire Stations affected are: College Area – 62nd St. & Acorn St.; Downtown San Diego – 1st Ave. & B St.; Downtown San Diego – 8th Ave. & J Street; Golden Hill – 25th Street & Broadway; Kearny Mesa – Kearny Villa Rd. & Aero Dr.; Lincoln Park – Imperial Ave. & Willie James Jones Ave.; Midway – Midway Dr. & Kemper St.; Mira Mesa – Black Mountain Rd. & Maya Linda Rd.; North Park – 32nd St. & Lincoln Ave.; Pacific Beach – Grand Ave. & Mission Blvd.; Rancho Penasquitos – Salmon River Rd. & Paseo Montalban; San Ysidro – San Ysidro Blvd. & Cottonwood Rd.; and University City – Eastgate Mall & Genesee Ave.
The city already struggles to meet the fire industry standard of responding to 90 percent of emergency calls within five minutes. Fire crews in San Diego respond to about 54 percent of calls within five minutes.
The plan calls for up to eight of the city’s 47 fire engines to go unused on any given day. The firefighters for those engines would then be used as fill-ins elsewhere for colleagues who are out because of illness, vacation or injury. The replacements would eliminate the need to pay about $11.5 million each year in overtime to fill those vacancies.
While the changes result in a 13 percent reduction in fire crews and equipment, no fire station would be closed under the plan, which begins Feb. 6.
Fire Chief Javier Mainar, who was appointed in October to replace the retiring Tracy Jarman, said he fully expects response times to worsen but he didn’t want to guess how bad it would get.
“Public safety is a little bit like an insurance policy, you hope you never have to use it, but when it needs to be there it needs to be there in full effect,” he said. “Today we’re reducing our coverage and that’s not a good thing.”
The savings goal of $11.5 million can only be reached by shutting down eight engines every day, but Mainar said he doesn’t expect to meet the goal because he will adjust the brown outs as the situation warrants.
“We’ll try to get as close as we can,” he said.
Frank De Clercq, head of the firefighters union, said his members are concerned about their ability to serve the public but acknowledged the city has little choice but to make the cuts.
“We’re facing unparalleled times,” he said. “The city’s done what it can with the revenue it’s got. … Now it’s affecting our ability to serve the citizens and protect them. The response times and service levels are going to be affected.”
De Clercq said the plan is a blow to firefighters who continually urge city leaders to fund construction of an additional 22 fire stations that studies show are needed to meet national safety standards.
Specifically, the plan will result in service reductions at each of the 13 stations that have multiple crews, typically a fire engine and a fire truck. Three stations — located in the College Area, Mira Mesa and Rancho Penasquitos neighborhoods — will permanently lose engines. The remaining 10 stations will lose their engines every other month.
An engine, the smaller of the two vehicles, carries a fire hose, water and a pump and its main role is to extinguish fires. The truck, which has ladders and specialized equipment, is primarily used for search and rescue and smoke ventilation. Each vehicle has a crew that includes a paramedic and three emergency medical technicians.
Mainar said he felt he could reduce the number of engines without a substantial loss in service because only about 3 percent of the department’s calls involve fires. The vast majority are medical or accident calls.
City Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who chairs the council’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services committee, said she will ask the chief to give monthly updates to monitor how the brown outs are affecting neighborhoods.
“We are patching the budget deficit by cutting public safety services,” she said. “We should all be concerned about this.”