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Brownouts have increased response time, fire chief says

By JOE BRITTON

City News Service

Rolling “brownouts” imposed at San Diego fire stations to help balance the city’s budget have prolonged the time it takes to respond to emergencies, Fire-Rescue Department Chief Javier Mainar testified Wednesday.

“Suffice it to say, the predicted outcome has come to pass. Response times are increasing,” Mainar told the City Council’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee.

In February, the number of fire engine companies at 13 of San Diego’s 47 fire stations was reduced on a rotating basis in an effort to save the city about $11.5 million annually.

Up to eight fire engines, which are capable of carrying water, are taken out of service each day, and the firefighters are used to fill in elsewhere.

The so-called brownouts were included in Mayor Jerry Sanders’ mid-year plan to close a $179 million budget shortfall. The City Council approved the cuts in December.

The national response time standard is 5 minutes, 90 percent of the time.

According to a report by the SDFRD, firefighters in the city met that standard 53 percent of the time between February and March of this year, compared to 55 percent of the time for the same period last year.

“Increased response times result inevitably in the increased possibility of greater injury, death or fire spread and property damage,” Mainar said. “When you are running 110,000 incidents and you are now doing it with 13 percent fewer resources, it’s inevitable it’s going to take you longer to get there. And seconds and minutes are a big deal in our business.”

Mainar said the department is doing all it can to “minimize the negative impacts and the risks associated with the brownout plan.”

“Our fear, of course, is that at some point down the road, circumstances will conspire against us and there will be a tragedy that perhaps could have been prevented had we not been engaged in the brownouts,” he said.

Concern about the brownouts increased last month, following a deadly fire at a four-story Golden Hill apartment complex.

Crews from a station three blocks away arrived in under a minute in a truck that wasn’t equipped to extinguish a fire, Mainar said. Firefighters entered a burning apartment but had to turn back due to high heat and smoke.

Because the fire engine at the nearby station was out of service due to the brownouts, an engine was dispatched from Barrio Logan and arrived on the scene within 4 1/2 minutes.

Firefighters extinguished the blaze in the apartment in about 20 minutes, and during a search of the premise found the body of an 83-year-old man.

The Medical Examiner’s Office later determined the man died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Mainar told the committee there is no way to definitively determine if the man would have survived had the engine been available, but that it was his belief the “victim could not have survived that particular fire.”

The chief said about four people die in San Diego annually because of fires.

He said the Fire Department is looking at minor revisions to the brownout program, but pending new revenue sources, those changes won’t likely include the restoration of service.

Mainar said he is particularly concerned about addressing response times in Rancho Penasquitos and University City.

“We are going to need to make some adjustments there, or I feel we are going to have a problem,” Mainar said.

Committee members said when money becomes available, it should first go toward restoring funding for public safety.

“We want to see public safety cuts restored first as a priority,” Councilman Todd Gloria said.

Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who chairs the committee, indicated she would like to see funding quickly restored for at least three of the browned-out fire engines.

“We don’t want to get to that place where we are saying ‘we should have done it,’ or ‘maybe we should have taken that direction or initiative’ and we missed the opportunity to save a life,” Emerald said.