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

By Joe Tash


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.

Response times are faster south of I-8, he said, because more stations were built closer together, he said,

Working together

In North County, cooperation between four different fire departments serving Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach, Del Mar and Encinitas has helped keep response times level, when otherwise they might have risen due to increased population, said Darrin Ward, deputy chief of operations for the four agencies.

Among the cooperative agreements between the departments is sharing battalion chiefs and consolidating management functions such as finance, training and administration. Beyond the four departments, agencies across North County have combined their dispatch centers, and adopted a policy of boundary drops, meaning the closest unit will respond to a fire or medical emergency, no matter where the emergency occurs or which agency the unit belongs to.

“We don’t have city borders like we had 23 years ago when I started,” Ward said. “Even though we’re not one county fire department, the guys on the floor, they act like it…. The closest one to a call goes.”

Computer-assisted dispatching systems have also helped keep response times as low as possible, Ward said. For example, computers have store data for three years’ worth of calls, which the system uses to predict activity during periods of high call volumes, allowing units to be stationed most efficiently.

“It’s kept (response times) steady. With increasing demands on the system, technology and agreements made by the North County fire chiefs… we are finding ways and making agreements to keep things leveled off,” Ward said.

Geography also plays a part in response times, he said.

Rancho Santa Fe tends to have longer response times because each station covers 9.4 square miles. The entire city of Del Mar is just 2 square miles in area, while Solana Beach covers 3.6 square miles.

Overall, Rancho Santa Fe has a lower call volume than more urbanized areas and is mostly residential, while in contrast the cities have more commercial areas and taller buildings, Ward said.

Getting police to emergencies

Capt. Al Guaderrama, who heads the San Diego Police Department’s Northern Division, which includes La Jolla, University City, Clairemont, Pacific Beach and Mission Beach, said the average response time for emergency calls in his division is between 7:00 and 7:30 — a statistic that has held steady in recent years. Break out police calls in La Jolla and you get a slower response of 9:02, according to department statistics.

In 2010, the citywide average police response time for emergency calls was 6:30 minutes, said Capt. Lori Luhnow, of Northwestern Division, which includes Carmel Valley, Del Mar Heights and North City and other areas. Carmel Valley —at an average of 6:46 — is right in line with the citywide figure. The community had the lowest call volume among the city’s nine divisions, Lunhow noted.

In the incorporated cities of Del Mar and Solana Beach, which contract with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department for police services, responses came more quickly: averaging 4 minutes in Solana Beach and 4:36 in Del Mar.

Rancho Santa Fe also utilizes sheriff’s services for emergencies, but uses CHP for traffic, so comparable times aren’t available. However, the community’s response time for calls such as robbery, vehicle theft and burglary came in at 16:42.

According to John Firman, director of research with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the group does not have guidelines for police response times due to two factors: the significant differences between 18,000 police agencies across the United States, and the many variables that go into how police respond to emergencies, and how quickly they respond, such as their vehicles, equipment, staffing, number of calls, type of calls, geography, terrain, etc.

“Our position is this is a uniquely local number based on the satisfaction of police and their citizens,” Firman said.

Impact of traffic, road conditions

Traffic is one of the key factors that affect response times, especially during morning and afternoon rush hours, Guaderrama said.

The layout of a neighborhood’s roads can also have an impact. Detective Gary Hassen, a San Diego police spokesman, said average response times in La Jolla are higher than in Carmel Valley, and part of the reason is that La Jolla is an older community, with daily traffic bottlenecks at its major entrance and exit points.

“There’s significant geographical barriers you have to deal with, and traffic congestion,” he said. “That’s why some communities have faster response times than others.”

The public can help

Authorities can do their part to reduce response times, but there are some things residents can do as well.

With the proliferation of cell phones, many people grab their cell phone to make a 9-1-1 emergency call, even when a landline is nearby, said Ward. But a landline call can often be dispatched more quickly, because the caller’s address is displayed on the dispatcher’s monitor and does not have to be typed in.

“If you’re in a home or business and there is a regular phone, use that phone,” Ward said. “It’s quicker for them to get the guys or gals rolling to your house.”

Another thing people can do is to pull over when a fire truck, ambulance or police car approaches from behind with its lights and siren on, officials said.

“If you see that patrol car with its lights and siren, we’re going to need you to pull over to the right shoulder,” Northern Division’s Guaderrama said.

Another way residents can help police respond more quickly to emergencies is to use the department’s non-emergency line, (619) 531-2000, or the website

to report thefts and other less serious crimes, Luhnow said.

“If they use those services, it’s quicker for them and it doesn’t tie up an officer to come take a report, leaving them more available for proactive work or emergency calls,” she added.

Crime rate in decline

Budget cuts have challenged police managers to do more with less in recent years, but favorable crime trends have helped — a report issued earlier this year by the San Diego Association of Governments noted that crime in San Diego County hit a 30-year low in 2010, at 3.61 violent crimes and 21.04 property crimes per 1,000 residents.

In spite of the downward trend in crime statistics, police seem to be keeping as busy as ever, said Capt. Sherri Sarro of the Encinitas Sheriff’s Station, crime-fighting headquarters for Encinitas, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe and Solana Beach.

“Even though crime is down, it doesn’t mean calls for service are down,” Sarro said.

“I think overall, we’re still doing what the public expects of us, and using our deputies in the best way we can,” she said.

Emergency Response Times by Community and Agency

La Jolla

Police — 9:02

Fire Station 9, 7870 Ardath Lane — 5:49

Fire Station 13, 809 Nautilus St. — 5:16

Fire Station 16, 2110 Via Casa Alta— 6:33

Carmel Valley

Police — 6:46

Fire Station 24, 13077 Hartfield Ave. — 6:29

Station 46, 14556 Lazanja Drive — 6:18

Station 47, 6401 Edgewood Bent Court — 7:35

Solana Beach

Police — 4:00

Fire — 4:14

Del Mar

Police — 4:36

Fire — 4:39

Rancho Santa Fe

Police: N/A* Rancho Santa Fe had no Priority 1 calls for 2010, the period covered. Average response time for Priority 2 calls was 16:42. (Priority 1 includes such categories as serious accident and SWAT alert; Priority 2 includes a variety of calls including robbery, vehicle theft and burglary.

Fire — 5:48

Statistics represent average response times for a 12-month period, although the specific period covered varies slightly between agencies.

Source: San Diego Police Department, San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, San Diego Fire Rescue Department, and the Solana Beach, Del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe fire departments.