Calling for help in La Jolla: Police, fire officials aim to improve response times

By Joe Tash

Contributor

Police and fire agencies from La Jolla to Solana Beach and Rancho Santa Fe are working to maintain or even improve emergency response times in the face of challenges such as increased traffic congestion and tight local government budgets.

Although clogged roads can impede emergency responders, innovations in technology and cooperative agreements between agencies can help them reach people faster, officials said.

In the city of San Diego, whose jurisdiction includes La Jolla and Carmel Valley, the Fire-Rescue Department said response times, are expected to decrease after “rolling brownouts” — in which staffing was reduced across the city for budget reasons — ended on July 1.

San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar said that prior to the brownouts, the Fire-Rescue Department responded to emergency calls within 5 minutes 54 percent of the time. He said the department expects to return to that level of service now that the rolling brownouts have ended.

The most recent statistics from fiscal year 2010 show average responses ranging from 5 minutes and 16 seconds (5:16) to 6:33 in La Jolla and from 6:18 to 7:35 in Carmel Valley. (See chart at end of story for station-by-station times.)

According to Mainar, there are three components to response times by firefighters: first, the time it takes for dispatchers to receive the call and assign it to firefighters; second, the time it takes firefighters to stop what they are doing, put on the appropriate gear and roll out the door; and third, the driving time to the call.

“We really have to get all of those pieces right to do a good job,” he said.

National response standard

The National Fire Protection Association has established a standard of a first-unit response to emergency calls within six minutes of the call being placed, 90 percent of the time. According to an NFPA document, the total of six minutes includes one minute for dispatchers to process the call, 1 minute of “turnout” time and 4 minutes of travel time.

Officials said the NFPA standard is a guideline, rather than a mandate for fire response times. Actual response times by fire departments can depend on many factors, such as the location and placement of fire stations, road and traffic conditions in a community and fire department staffing levels.

In order for San Diego to move closer to the 6-minute response-time goal, 10 new fire stations and nine roving “fast response teams” of two firefighters each are needed, according to a city-commissioned study by Citygate Associates LLC which came out in February.

“At the city’s desired firefighting response time performance measures, there are just not enough fire crews and stations in all areas,” said the report.

“It starts by the community identifying what they want the outcome to be,” said Mainar. “You tell us what you want us to accomplish, the fire department, the police department, we’ll tell you the resource levels we need to do that.”

Part of the challenge, said Mainar, is that as the city has grown, it has spaced fire stations farther apart. Communities north of Interstate 8, including La Jolla and Carmel Valley, have longer response times, because they have fewer fire stations and more distance between stations.

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