Fact Check: The Real Cost of a Four-Person Fire Crew - Voice of San Diego

Emergency Response Times UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Fact Check: The Real Cost of a Four-Person Fire Crew

A key part of the pitch for the two-person emergency response crew serving Encanto is that it’s cheap. But firefighter union president Alan Arrollado says the crews are actually a raw deal for taxpayers.

MisleadingStatement: “The city is paying half-price for quarter-service,” Alan Arrollado, president of San Diego’s firefighter’s union, wrote about the city’s two-person emergency response crew in a Dec. 1 op-ed.

Determination: Misleading

Analysis: A key part of the pitch for the new, two-person emergency response crew serving Encanto is that it’s cheap.

Two firefighters operating out of a pick-up truck responding to 911 calls costs roughly $700,000 a year and allows the Fire-Rescue Department to get to emergencies quicker in a neighborhood long underserved by first responders. A city consultant recommended experimenting with the crews because they could handle emergencies in some neighborhoods at significantly less expense than building a new fire station. New stations staffed with a full four-person engine crew cost about $12 million.

Firefighter union president Alan Arrollado makes a different argument. He says the two-person crews are actually a raw deal for taxpayers.

The two-person crew, Arrollado said, costs about half as much to run as a four-person engine. But it only operates for 12 hours a day, instead of full time like four-person crews do.

“So, the city is paying half-price for quarter-service,” Arrollado wrote in an op-ed for us Monday. “We have to ask – is this an effective use of taxpayer dollars?”

Arrollado is off a bit in his cost comparisons. A four-person crew costs $2 million annually, including salaries and benefits, which is closer to three times what the two-person crew costs. But the bigger issue is what he left out.

In his op-ed, Arrollado makes no mention of the cost to build a new fire station. That $12 million price tag includes buying land, designing the facility, building it and then putting a new four-person fire engine online. Arrollado’s comparison only works if it’s apples to apples. And the cost to house the crews, whether it’s a two-person truck or four-person engine, is a big piece of the apple.

The high cost of building new stations is a primary reason some of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods continue to be underserved. Almost four years ago, a consultant identified the neighborhood around Home Avenue in City Heights as having the greatest risk in the city for a late response to an emergency call. A late response is any time it takes first responders more than seven minutes and 30 seconds to arrive at a scene after a 911 call. The city has done nothing to speed response times around Home Avenue.

Other neighborhoods have gotten solutions sooner because capital costs in those communities are so low. In Encanto, the two-person crew is stationed at the Black Contractors Association building at minimal cost. A new, temporary fire station is expected to open in Skyline next month because the city owns a vacant piece of land there and was able to get the site ready for roughly $500,000.

But Arrollado told me the capital cost argument is a red herring. The city, he said, owns land all over San Diego. If it wanted to put temporary stations with four-person crews on city-owned land, it wouldn’t cost all that much. He pointed to the upcoming Skyline station as an example.

“The capital cost is truly not a barrier to providing service,” Arrollado said.

Arrollado makes a fair point in the abstract. But it’s not been the city’s reality. Capital costs have been a barrier. Even though Encanto and Skyline weren’t the neediest neighborhoods the consultant identified, they were high on the list. But other communities far down on the list could get emergency response relief before Home Avenue. The reason is funding for facilities.

The consultant ranked Black Mountain Ranch, a northeastern neighborhood, 18th on the list of communities that need better emergency coverage. But developer fees are paying for its facility so it should be coming online sooner than others.

“While it remains Fire-Rescue’s goal to implement the stations in priority order, the primary driver for determining which stations can be built is the availability of funding,” the city’s independent budget analyst said in a recent report.

For Arrollado to leave out the steep cost to build a station makes his argument misleading.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

You can also e-mail new Fact Check suggestions to factcheck@voiceofsandiego.org. What claim should we explore next?

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