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Fire chief explains challenging realities of brownouts

Time translates into loss of lives and property in firefighting.

“Seconds count in our business,” San Diego fire chief Javier Mainar told La Jolla Town Council members last week. “Fires grow geometrically,” he said, adding Fire-Rescue tries to get to the scene by the eight-minute mark because after that “every room ignites.”

The standard goal firefighters strive to achieve is reaching 90 percent of all fires within five minutes.

He acknowledged that the practice of shutting down up to eight fire engine companies daily — called “brownouts” — has lengthened fire and emergency response times, “but only by a couple of seconds.”

The cost-cutting move is designed to save $11.5 million in reduced overtime. Talking about the impacts of brownouts on La Jolla, Mainar said when La Jolla engines are busy, help is further away and that La Jolla engines are also drawn into adjacent communities more often.

La Jolla is fortunate, said Mainar, because none of its three stations — #9 in the Throat, #13 on Nautilus and #16 on Mount Soledad — are browned out. But two neighboring stations in Pacific Beach and University City are,

The chief said times are “challenging” given the city’s budget crisis, which is causing city departments across the board to hold the line with less funding and staff.

Citywide response times showed San Diego Fire-Rescue got to the scene within five minutes 55.15 percent of the time in 2009, compared with 53.31 percent of the time this year. Average response time was 5:03 in 2009 and 5:09 this year.

La Jolla average fire response times last year versus this year were: 5:44 vs. 5:33 for Engine 9, 5:02 vs. 5:03 for Engine 13 and 6:24 vs. 6:47 for Engine 16.

Mainar said the rolling “brownouts” as a cost-cutting option were “his call ... We didn’t want to close any fire stations. We felt communities paid for those and had a right for them to be open.”

Responding to fires is only a small part of what Fire-Rescue does. Said Mainar: “Most of what we do is emergency medical. Only 3.5 percent of what we do is fire response.”

A total of 82 percent of calls are medical, many are rescue/special service.

Even though fires are a proportionately small part of Fire-Rescue’s workload, they respond to 300-plus daily incident responses citywide — 110,000 annually.

In other action

La Jolla Town Council trustees voted overwhelmingly to voluntarily assess themselves each $250 one time to build up the organization’s treasury, which has been shrinking. The tax-deductible levy is due by the end of June.

In making the motion, treasurer John Donaldson said, “We have an individual who has agreed to match, dollar-for-dollar, up to $10,000. We’re trying to bring the finances of this organization up to some degree of healthy level.”