San Diego fire chief foresees more station brownouts


By Dave Schwab

Staff Writer

Javier Mainar, San Diego’s fire chief since October 2009, recently talked to the Light about the mayor’s budget-cutting proposal and how it could impact his department should Proposition D, the half-cent sales tax not pass on Nov. 2. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: What exactly has the fire department been asked to trim for FY 2012 in the mayor’s new worst-case budget-cutting proposal?

A: We got hit pretty hard in FY 2011. This year, the fire department has been asked to cut $7.2 million, roughly 7 percent, the same amount other public safety departments are being asked to cut. Non-public safety departments are being asked to cut up to 25 percent. They (city) tried to spare public safety, but police and fire make up over 50 percent of the city’s general fund. So it was inevitable that we would have to participate (in budget cuts) to some degree.

Q: How will the department implement these cuts if Prop. D doesn’t pass?

A: To get to $7.2 million we really had to cut back on our fire and lifeguard operations. The biggest money savings comes in the form of putting an additional five fire engines or trucks into the brownout rotation. Bumping the number from eight to 13 saves about $5.4 million. Thirteen units subject to temporary closure every day represents 22 percent of the total on-duty firefighting force. So it’s a significant cut.

Q: If Prop. D passes, what cuts are likely, or would it be status quo then with the current brownout policy?

A: I have been meeting with the chief of police to find a strategy to take cuts out of operations and exhaust administrative remedies. The reality is we can’t due anything to restore the resources that have been cut absent additional revenues. We operate two helicopters, one year-round, and one during wildfire season. Eliminating the second helicopter during the fire season saves about $1.1 million. We still own two vehicles. We’d be operating just one.

One of the challenges in getting rid of the second helicopter and five additional fire engines (to brownouts) is that it results in layoffs. The current brownout plan saves men by cutting back on overtime. We’ve exhausted that. Now to save money by reducing units, that requires us to get rid of staff. Depending on how many folks retire between now and when the cuts are implemented, it’s conceivable up to 60 firefighters would have to be let go along with demotions, driven by seniority. Lastly, there would be cuts in lifeguard service. They’re taking another hit. They would largely eliminate any lifeguard coverage at North Pacific Beach and, for much of the year, have no lifeguard coverage on Mission Bay.

Q: Given an expanded brownout policy for fire engines, how will you fill in the coverage gaps that are going to be caused?

A: We flex our staffing. Now the gaps are going to get larger. We respond simply by moving resources as we need to, resulting in longer response times. Reducing five additional engines means you have 22 percent fewer units chasing ever-increasing demand for emergency response. Crews are busier and it takes them longer to cover the additional territory. In the current brownout plan, we’ve been able to limit cuts to fire stations that have more than one unit in them. This time around, we’ll be impacting single-unit fire stations. That fire station is down for a month and has no staff.

Q: Is there a plan yet for the expanded brownout policy should that be necessary?

A: We don’t have a plan in place. We would have to modify our existing plan. We haven’t figured out yet how to do this to achieve savings. The mayor’s plan has new budget cuts taking effect July 1 of the coming year. So we do have some time to develop a plan.

Q: What impact do you expect more budget cuts would have on engine response times? How much have response times already increased?

A: Our goal is to get to everything we can within five minutes, 90 percent of the time. Prior to the brownouts, we were achieving that 55 percent of the time. Now citywide we’re doing that 54 percent of the time. Looking at individual fire districts we’re ranging from 24 percent to 80 percent. With each fire unit that you take out of service, the response time inevitably starts to increase.

Q: Is there a possibility for even more budget cuts in the future?

A: We have a structural deficit. Right now we’re at the point where we spend $72 million more a year than we take in. There needs to be a way to fix that going forward or this will be a recurring theme.

Q: Did you ever think the budget situation would come to this?

A: One of the things we’re sometimes accused of out in the community is sensationalizing. This I can tell you: I never thought we’d be browning out (up to) eight engines a day. And yet, here we are. And the mayor is asking us to contribute a certain amount (more) to budget reductions and to have a plan to achieve that. We can’t rest on our laurels and just hope (more cuts) don’t go into play. Hope is not a very good strategy.