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Marti Emerald, head of the City Council’s public safety committee, tried to explain why the city hasn’t gone through with a pilot program to address emergency response time disparities.
Three years ago, a fire consulting firm recommended an alternative that could help the city deal with the problem of emergency response crews arriving late to calls for help in certain parts of the city. Creating two-person crews in some pockets of San Diego would be cheaper than building new fire stations, the firm said.
City Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who heads the Council’s public safety committee, doesn’t want the crews. At a hearing last week, she argued the money would be better spent elsewhere.
The only problem: To support her argument, she asked a series of questions that have the potential to distort the issue.
Her perspective, though, could explain why the city hasn’t funded the crews even though their appeal is obvious. New fire stations with a four-person engine company cost roughly $12 million, including the first year of staffing. The two-person crews cost about $600,000 annually. The fire consultant, Citygate, didn’t know if the crews would work, but recommended a one-year pilot program. Fire-Rescue Chief Javier Mainar, the fire union and the City Council all agreed to the program.
But some Council members have resisted the two-person crews because they’d rather see the full fire stations built.
Last month, the city put some money toward building two new stations. So far, though, none of the five neighborhoods at the greatest risk for a delayed response – Home Avenue in City Heights, Paradise Hills, College Area, Skyline and Encanto – has had a new station built or a two-person crew added in the three years since Citygate released its report.
Now, let’s examine Emerald’s questions to Assistant Fire-Rescue Chief Ken Barnes at the hearing.
Back when the Citygate study was released, the city had temporarily idled or “browned out” eight fire engines across the city to save money. The city has since restored those engines. Emerald asked if the two-person crews were meant as a stop-gap solution to help when fire engines were offline.
“We were very shorthanded and short on money to be able to do much about it,” Emerald said. “This was recommended as a short-term solution, was it not? In light of all the browned out units?”
No, Barnes said, it wasn’t. He said the two-person crews were recommended as a potential alternative to building new fire stations in certain neighborhoods.
Citygate recommended adding the two-person crews even after the browned-out engines came back. The report says it assumed a scenario where the department had returned to full strength. Here’s Page 3:
So the two-person crews were not a solution created to deal with browned-out engines – they are a mechanism to help fill gaps even when all the department’s engines were online.
But Barnes’ answer didn’t deter Emerald from keeping up the same line of questioning. She later referred to the two-person crews as a “short-term recommendation” and asked again whether the crews were needed in light of the engine restorations.
Emerald asked if the two-person crews, known as fast-response squads, could lead to crew shortages at existing fire stations.
“You’re saying that you need to take firefighters away from stations to staff the fast-response squads,” Emerald asked Barnes.
Yes, Barnes said, the two-person crews will be staffed with existing firefighters. But he emphasized that no stations will have fewer firefighters on duty as a result.
The $600,000 cost to add the two-person crews is mainly the extra money needed to pay existing firefighters to work the crews without taking them from somewhere else. Firefighters will be assigned to the crews and others will fill their spots at existing stations. The two-person squads wouldn’t deplete the force.
Typically, four firefighters have to be on the scene of a structure fire before anyone’s allowed to enter the building, per federal safety standards. Emerald implied that the two-person crews would therefore be useless.
“They can go and they can observe and they can do a little crowd control but they can’t actually go in and fight the fire,” Emerald said to Barnes.
But that’s a red herring. Less than 3 percent of the Fire-Rescue Department’s incident runs last year were for fires. And not all fires are structure fires where the four-person safety rules apply. For instance, one, two or three firefighters could extinguish fires that are outside. There are also exceptions for structure fires: Firefighters are allowed to enter buildings when the life of someone inside is threatened, even if four crew members aren’t there.
Most of the time fire crews respond to medical emergencies. More than 87 percent of the department’s incident runs last year were medical. Time can matter greatly in those situations, particularly to people suffering from cardiac arrest.
Emerald is right that two firefighters alone can’t go into burning buildings most of the time. But most firefighter responses don’t involve going into burning buildings.
All of Emerald’s questions about the two-person crews led to this argument: Instead of spending $600,000 on two-person crews, the city should address response-time problems in other ways.
Indeed, the city is doing other things. It’s allocated a few million dollars toward building new fire stations on Home Avenue and in Skyline. It’s also considering spending $2.8 million on a temporary station on city-owned land in Skyline, including the cost of 12 firefighters to work there, until the new station is done. Emerald has specifically called out the temporary Skyline station as a better use of money.
Citygate said the two-person crews might work only to fill gaps in certain neighborhoods, not all of them. Encanto is fifth on the list of greatest response need, but first where the study recommended trying out a crew.
The elephant in the room here is building fire stations at all. If two-person emergency crews work, the thinking goes, they could become an argument against building the more expensive full stations. Neither the Fire-Rescue Department nor the Council wants that.
“I respect the analysis in the Citygate report,” Emerald told me in an email. “I am also responsible for getting the biggest bang out of our limited tax dollars. I have consulted with our chief and his experts over the choice of a short-term pilot project or a new temporary fire station in Skyline. I choose the fire station.”