The heat is on: Fire chief tries to extinguish fears about brownouts


Temporarily removing fire engines from service was a bit of a gamble — but one the city was willing to take and is betting it can win through smart management, San Diego fire chief Javier Mainar said recently.

But the budget-cutting plan the city is referring to as “brownouts,” which closes up to eight city fire engines daily and has been in effect since Feb. 6, is nonetheless risky — especially in the long term.

“Over time circumstances will conspire against you,” conceded Mainar about the “potential” for something bad happening with temporary engine closures. “In the long run you can’t operate a system like this pulling resources out ... eventually something unfortunate will occur ... (Though) I don’t know how long that will take.”

None of La Jolla’s three fire stations are subject to closure, but they are likely to feel the effects of the closure plan because Station 35 in UTC and Station 21 in Pacific Beach will close periodically.

More than a month into the plan, the chief reported to the City Council’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee that nothing catastrophic had happened thus far and that few calls were affected.

Statistics covering Feb. 6 to Feb. 28, show Station 21 and Station 35, respectively, had their units temporarily out of service 81.4 percent and 62.58 percent of the time.

Monitoring closely

First District City Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, a member of the safety committee, said the brown out situation is being closely monitored.

“We’re watching it and we’re going to be well aware of any response-time issues,” she said. “There will be continual evaluation of what’s going on.”

Capt. Kevin McWalters of Station 9, located at La Jolla’s busiest intersection at Torrey Pines Road and La Jolla Parkway, said the plan “will have an impact ... Anytime you take a resource out of the area — there’s another unit that has to cover up for it.”

Shuffling resources and manpower necessary for La Jolla crews to fill coverage gaps could be tricky, he added.

“Call volumes go up in severe weather when we start running a lot of traffic accidents,” he said. “You’re going to have units committed on those and others (covering) will be having to travel farther distances.”

Rolling to rescue

For example, response time for a cliff rescue at La Jolla’s Black’s Beach, reportedly was delayed nearly 20 minutes when a backup unit had to come from downtown San Diego.

Coping with thinner resources will require greater anticipation, said Capt. Rich Marcello of Station 16 on Mount Soledad.

“We have to strategically pre-plan everything we do,” he said. “You’re constantly trying to move about, figuring out the best point to be at when calls come in. It’s a constantly moving pattern.”

And there are major access issues complicating firefighting in the Jewel.

Said Marcello: “There are very few ways in and out and it’s very surprising how congested traffic is through the whole day. When you add summer into it as well ...”

Add to that, Assistant Fire Chief Jeffrey A. Carle’s observation: “Within our city we have a lot of urban environment, like La Jolla with a lot of canyons, that has this interface threat (brush fires). Add the slopes and the vegetation on the east side of Mt. Soledad: There’s a ton of risk right there.”

Trimming budget

The brownout plan is meant to trim $11.5 million from the city’s Fire-Rescue Department as part of the city’s $179 million budget reduction goal for FY 20111.

Done in lieu of closing community fire stations or laying off firefighters, the effect of the new policy will be to “increase the probability that it will take us longer to arrive, or that we may not be available because we’re busy,” the chief said.

Fire officials say they’re doing everything conceivable to efficiently manage depleted resources while preparing for future emergencies.

Noting it’s easy to take the reduced service plan out of context, Fire-Rescue Department spokesman Maurice Luque said: “You need to look at the bigger picture. Even without a brownout in effect, we do have situations where there are some response issues because we are short 22 fire stations anyway based on an independent assessment.”

The national standard for fire response is getting to the scene within five minutes 90 percent of the time.

“We do that 54 percent of the time,” Luque said. “So there are some situations, especially in certain parts of the city where fire stations are farther apart, where there are some response-time issues.”

Given that more than 85 percent of fire department calls are for medical aid, Luque added, “If we have, God forbid, some negative outcome related to the brownouts, the percentage chance it’s going to be medical is higher than if it’s going to be a fire.”

Frank DeClercq of San Diego Firefighters’ Local 145, which gave input on the brown-out plan but was not involved in formulating it, noted it’s an enormous task to shut down up to eight fire engine companies daily while shifting their resources strategically and efficiently in the 330-square-mile coverage area. That task, he said, is greatly complicated by demographic factors.

“The city has grown at a much faster pace, become much more dense, and at the same time infrastructure, building fire stations, has not kept pace,” he said.

Regarding the impact of temporary station closures, DeClercq conceded, “It’s kind of a guessing game when you shut engine companies down as to what the outlying engines are doing at that moment. Chances are pretty great that outlying engines are committed on calls as well. So it’s anybody’s guess as to where they’re (engines) coming from when you have a catastrophic incident like a structure fire or an incident at the cliffs.”

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Fire department left to fill gaps in coverage

Taking up to eight fire engines — 13 percent — of the city’s firefighting force out of service daily due to budget cuts means fire dispatch will be harder pressed than ever to fill coverage gaps.

But scrambling against time to redeploy scarce resources while still “covering all the bases” geographically is nothing new to the fire department, officials said.

“For a city this size (330 square miles), engines have to cover for each other, and we have delayed responses getting to situations,” Fire-Rescue spokesman Maurice Luque noted. “Those kinds of things exist day after day, year after year. It’s just the attention hasn’t been given it because there hasn’t been a brownout.”

Temporarily shutting down fire engines citywide, which began Feb. 6, has complicated the task of Susan Infantino, communications manager for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department. Her job involves overseeing the plugging of coverage gaps, literally moment-to-moment, on a daily basis.

Infantino described how Fire-Rescue’s CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch) system works.

  • Someone calls 911.
  • Basic information — time, location, nature of the incident — are taken down by one dispatcher, while another actually brings up the same call through the CAD system.
  • The electronic system then evaluates a number of fire response factors — i.e. where the call is, where all the nearby firefighting units are as shown on an automatic vehicle locator — before “recommending” the most appropriate dispatch response.

“We say we have a structure fire at this given latitude and longitude, give me the closest four engines, two trucks and two battalion chiefs for that structure fire,” Infantino said.
The computer system actually calculates the speediest road network to the incident, factoring in the number of left versus right turns, freeway speeds, one-way streets, etc., before recommending the closest fire units and their preferred travel route, she explained.

“Only then does the voice dispatcher notify the units over the radio and tones (emergency alarms) get set off in the stations,” Infantino said.

When a fire engine arrives at the scene, the crew hits a button electronically recording how much time has elapsed since the call first came in.

The vast majority of fire response calls — 85 percent to 90 percent — are for medical attention or responses to hazardous materials such as sewage spills. Of that 10 percent to 15 percent relating directly to fire, Infantino said the national benchmark, the gold standard for fire response, is for engines to arrive within 5 minutes 90 percent of the time.

For La Jolla’s Station No. 9 near “the Throat” intersection for the last quarter — before the brownout plan took effect — Station 9’s units made it to the scene within 5 minutes 40.3 percent in November, 51.81 percent in December and 34.94 percent in January. That’s a cumulative 42.49 percent within the 5-minute gold standard.