Pacific Beach man dies in fire in 'brownout' area

By Ken Fields

City News Service

A 43-year-old quadriplegic was found dead in his bed Wedneswday after firefighters doused a blaze in an apartment building in a Pacific Beach neighborhood affected by city budget-cutting reductions in emergency-services availability.

The blaze in the 2000 block of Diamond Street was reported shortly before 2 p.m. It took crews just under 10 minutes to extinguish the flames, which were confined to one ground-floor rental unit and caused an estimated $60,000 worth of damage, according to San Diego Fire-Rescue Department spokesman Maurice Luque.

Investigators determined that the blaze, which caused no other injuries, erupted when a cigarette the disabled man was smoking ignited the medicinal oxygen he used, Luque said.

The resident's name was withheld pending notification of his family.

Under a 14-month-old cost-cutting plan, the victim's neighborhood was subject to an emergency-response "brownout.'' Thus, the nearest fire station did not have a fire engine at its disposal -- a situation that resulted in a 90-second lag in firefighting response while a water tank- and hose-equipped vehicle was dispatched from La Jolla, Luque said.

The spokesman told reporters he could not say whether the life of the victim, described as a chain smoker, potentially could have been saved if not for that delay.

"All I can do is stick to the facts," he said. "And the facts are that our first apparatus in was a truck, (and) it did not have water. The first water arrived ... a minute and a half later. During that period of time, a minute and a half -- that's a lot of time for a fire to free-burn as it did in

this case.''

Due to the explosive origin of the blaze, however, even the quickest possible response might have made no difference, the spokesman said.

A caretaker employed by the man had left earlier in the day, leaving him alone in the apartment, according to Luque.

Under the brownout program, which went into effect in February 2010, engine companies at 13 of the city's 47 fire stations are deactivated for a month at a time on a rotating basis, leaving up to eight of them unavailable each day. The firefighters who otherwise would staff those vehicles fill in for other crew members who are absent from duty.

The program was aimed at saving the city about $11.5 million in overtime expenditures and was part of a proposal that Mayor Jerry Sanders floated in 2009 in a bid to close a $179 million budget shortfall. The City Council approved the cuts in December of that year.

The mayor's latest budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year would phase out the brownout policy, returning four fire engines on July 1 and the rest at the beginning of next year. Restoring the full fleet of water-pumping vehicles also has been a top stated priority of the City Council.

At least two other fatal emergencies have prompted concerns and protests over the cost-saving city service reductions.

Last July, a toddler choked to death on a gumball in a Mira Mesa neighborhood affected by the cutbacks, prompting Fire Chief Javier Mainar to concede that the prevailing brownout "had a negative impact on our ability to provide service.''

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