Opinion

Why We Need to Invest in the Fire-Rescue Department

Why We Need to Invest in the Fire-Rescue Department

Photo by Sam Hodgson

San Diego Fire-Rescue Department Capt. David Gerboth shows off a map of southeastern San Diego that was historically used to determine how to respond to a call.

In May, the San Diego City Council scraped together the final dollars needed to build a fire station in Mission Valley. The long-awaited approval gave Fire Chief Javier Mainar a sense of relief. He said he had been waiting for a station in the valley since he first became a firefighter, 30 years ago. For the past decade, fire crews have worked out of a trailer in the far reaches of the Qualcomm parking lot.

Fix San Diego Opinion Logo But Mainar’s relief was fleeting. The chief needs 20 additional fire stations throughout the city if he hopes to bring response times down to acceptable levels: less than seven minutes and 30 seconds, 90 percent of the time. His crews barely reach this national standard half the time, especially in mid-city neighborhoods with their high number of calls. He knows he can only stretch his limited resources so far, before the system breaks.

Mainar isn’t the first fire chief to fret over a lack of resources. When the council refused to invest more resources after the devastating 2003 wildfires, Chief Jeff Bowman resigned in frustration. Since then, we have lost many of our most experienced firefighters for the same reason: the city’s lack of commitment to public safety, especially to the men and women in the service who risk their lives protecting us every day.

I chair the City Council’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, as I have since I joined the council in 2008. It’s been the prime mission of my committee and I to rebuild our public safety agencies after years of neglect. We struggled through the recession like everyone else, and by 2011 got some traction from a slowly improving economy.  It’s time to hit the ground running.

In 2011, the city commissioned the Citygate report, a detailed and authoritative look at the needs of our Fire-Rescue Department. The public safety committee used the Citygate findings to craft a five-year plan to rebuild Fire-Rescue. The cornerstone of our plan is building the 20 fire stations this city so desperately needs; a $100-million-dollar effort beginning with the Home Avenue, Skyline and College Area stations, which are located in the busiest, highest-density neighborhoods in San Diego.

The council is committed to this plan. Using a combination of general fund and bond dollars, we plan to invest in the design and construction of fire stations each year going forward. We have begun this year with the final funding approval of the Mission Valley Fire Station 45. The city has also rebuilt the department’s in-station alerting system, rolled out more fire engines and other vehicles, is paying for academies to hire new firefighters and has instituted a new system to cut response times on emergency calls.

Public safety is everybody’s concern. We all have a stake in this plan to rebuild the Fire-Rescue Department. And we all share the obligation to hold the city accountable, each and every elected official, including the next mayor. There are no excuses.

Emerald’s commentary has been edited for clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here. Want to respond? Submit a commentary.

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Marti Emerald

Marti Emerald

Marti Emerald is the San Diego City Councilwoman for District 9.

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21 comments
Richard Rider
Richard Rider subscribermember

I've been advocating 2 man fire/emergency response teams since the 2003 fire, when I first became interested in firefighting operational reforms. It's great to see this idea gaining traction a decade later. But the problem faced is labor union featherbedding -- a time-honored goal for ANY union. The SD FD union's (like all unions) #1 priority is employing as many union members as possible -- more "boots on the ground" (but only highly paid union boots). For firefighter union bosses, public safety is important, but constitutes a secondary consideration. Building and manning more 4 man fire stations is the top priority for our fire department union. When push comes to shove, SD FD union president Frank De Clercq is quite willing to let a few more San Diegans die each year rather than than have the firefighters improve their response times with 2 man crews. Then he will blame the deaths on the taxpayers for not paying for more 4 man fire stations (actually 13 man/person fire stations, when you consider the 24/7 manning requirement). Sadly, no union has greater pull in city hall than our beloved firefighters -- and no union cares less about our city. Indeed, most "city" firefighters don't even live in San Diego -- many don't even live in San Diego COUNTY (commuting from further north). Yet the coveted firefighter candidate endorsement carries enormous weight in city politics. Unions rule!

john stump
john stump

Fire Stations should not be located for political reasons, like schools, but on the basis of population based need. City Heights currently has 1 station for more than 75,000 persons and 17 neighborhoods. City Heights needs 2 more stations 1 in City Heights center for the area East of Fairmount and 1 shared with Downtown and Southeast at Home and Federal off the MLK freeway.

john stump
john stump subscriber

Fire Stations should not be located for political reasons, like schools, but on the basis of population based need. City Heights currently has 1 station for more than 75,000 persons and 17 neighborhoods. City Heights needs 2 more stations 1 in City Heights center for the area East of Fairmount and 1 shared with Downtown and Southeast at Home and Federal off the MLK freeway.

Jack76
Jack76

While we might need a few more ambulances and paramedics I doubt we need more fully staffed firehouses and engine companies to chase them on their way to a medical call.

Gerald Hosenkamp
Gerald Hosenkamp

More fire stations require more equipment (expensive trucks) and training for more firefighters. Yet the designation is "fire-rescue". If VSD wants to do analysis, ask what percentage of fire-rescue calls are actually fire related. And with the city code requirement that new housing have interior sprinklers, won't the severity of fires drop. As they say, just asking.........

Gerald Hosenkamp
Gerald Hosenkamp subscriber

More fire stations require more equipment (expensive trucks) and training for more firefighters. Yet the designation is "fire-rescue". If VSD wants to do analysis, ask what percentage of fire-rescue calls are actually fire related. And with the city code requirement that new housing have interior sprinklers, won't the severity of fires drop. As they say, just asking.........

Elmer Walker
Elmer Walker

Marti has one concern with increasing fire safety employees and fire stations. They will vote for her. She is concerned about getting more firefighters, higher pay for them and improving their benefits. She has shown she is not really concerned about the taxpayers, just the union employees. She should go to work for the unions as that is where her interests are.

Elmer Walker
Elmer Walker subscriber

Marti has one concern with increasing fire safety employees and fire stations. They will vote for her. She is concerned about getting more firefighters, higher pay for them and improving their benefits. She has shown she is not really concerned about the taxpayers, just the union employees. She should go to work for the unions as that is where her interests are.

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

The pension scheme and the hundreds of millions in Annual costs will be with us at least another 12 years. Huge opportunity cost. Those dollars would go along ways in bringing the firehouses online but alas.....the monies are committed to back funding the pension system. The firefighters Union had a central role in the scam.

David Crossley
David Crossley

Marti--just keep trying to hold onto your office, as you could be the next victim of recall mania.

David Crossley
David Crossley subscriber

Marti--just keep trying to hold onto your office, as you could be the next victim of recall mania.

Omar Passons
Omar Passons

This editorial presents only part of a picture that is worth understanding in greater detail. As an initial matter, given the amount of time that the districts served by Ms. Emerald (and Ms. Cole, for that matter) have waited, I can't say that I fault her for making this point. The trouble is using money that was sought to fix existing capital needs on constructing new buildings has two troubling impacts. First, it delays--and potentially makes more expensive--existing capital repairs that the money was supposed to be used for. Second, it masks the true magnitude of the lack of funding we actually have. This conversation isn't as simple as needing new fire stations. It's about needing a comprehensive approach, a realistic picture of the woeful state of our assets and a commitment in our municipal budget to put communities who are well behind the safety curve first. I expect there will be those who raise the slew of very good arguments about money that should be saved. Yes, there are functions the city has no business doing. Yes, there are assets we can sell or lease to cut down on capital costs. Yes, there are efficiencies in Managed Competition that we should be realizing. But if I'm short $1,000 on bills each month I can't make that up by cutting the cable bill and switching to off-brand cereal. The now one-year old figure of infrastructure backlog is $898 Million. That doesn't include the 20 fire stations mentioned in this piece, doesn't include the consent decree mess in Pt. Loma and doesn't include a host of smaller projects in almost every community. And this is just the capital conversation. We need more robust discussions that bring in more of the sides of an issue if the city is to start to get more people to even consider alternatives to the current path. So it's good to have found this editorial to highlight one key issue, but it would be great to see Voice either ask for a more complete rendering or publish its own items to provide that missing perspective.

Omar Passons
Omar Passons subscribermember

This editorial presents only part of a picture that is worth understanding in greater detail. As an initial matter, given the amount of time that the districts served by Ms. Emerald (and Ms. Cole, for that matter) have waited, I can't say that I fault her for making this point. The trouble is using money that was sought to fix existing capital needs on constructing new buildings has two troubling impacts. First, it delays--and potentially makes more expensive--existing capital repairs that the money was supposed to be used for. Second, it masks the true magnitude of the lack of funding we actually have. This conversation isn't as simple as needing new fire stations. It's about needing a comprehensive approach, a realistic picture of the woeful state of our assets and a commitment in our municipal budget to put communities who are well behind the safety curve first. I expect there will be those who raise the slew of very good arguments about money that should be saved. Yes, there are functions the city has no business doing. Yes, there are assets we can sell or lease to cut down on capital costs. Yes, there are efficiencies in Managed Competition that we should be realizing. But if I'm short $1,000 on bills each month I can't make that up by cutting the cable bill and switching to off-brand cereal. The now one-year old figure of infrastructure backlog is $898 Million. That doesn't include the 20 fire stations mentioned in this piece, doesn't include the consent decree mess in Pt. Loma and doesn't include a host of smaller projects in almost every community. And this is just the capital conversation. We need more robust discussions that bring in more of the sides of an issue if the city is to start to get more people to even consider alternatives to the current path. So it's good to have found this editorial to highlight one key issue, but it would be great to see Voice either ask for a more complete rendering or publish its own items to provide that missing perspective.

Bill Smith
Bill Smith

PJ, Since you live in Wellington, New Zealand (you may own a summer mansion here, but certainly not in one of the underserved neighborhoods), I not terribly interested in your input. Thanks anyway for your efforts!

PJ Aradonis
PJ Aradonis

Okay, Marti, I'll bite: Let's make a deal. First, take care of the out-of-control unfunded liabilities the TAXPAYERS have incurred. Second, make the career path for firefighters align with their bloated salary package. Third, say NO to your pals at Local 135. The taxpayers of San Diego, your employer, will no longer abide your hand-in-glove operation at the behest of organized labor activists. While the removal of Bolshevik Bob may come as a setback, we see you are on-track to complete the "Progressive" takeover for your fellow travelers.

PJ Aradonis
PJ Aradonis

But Elmer, she IS working for the unions!

Jack76
Jack76

I find it strange that she writes commentary for the same website that smeared DeMaio with her account of something she didn't witness and seeks support from the same public employee groups (firefighters) who also smeared DeMaio. Something stinks and I think it's her.

David Hall
David Hall

Have you ever given thought to running for mayor? There's a position open, and so far none of the potential candidates seem to have this much common sense or balance.

David Hall
David Hall subscriber

Have you ever given thought to running for mayor? There's a position open, and so far none of the potential candidates seem to have this much common sense or balance.

Richard Rider
Richard Rider

I've been advocating 2 man fire/emergency response teams since the 2003 fire, when I first became interested in firefighting operational reforms. It's great to see this idea gaining traction a decade later. But the problem faced is labor union featherbedding -- a time-honored goal for ANY union. The SD FD union's (like all unions) #1 priority is employing as many union members as possible -- more "boots on the ground" (but only highly paid union boots). For firefighter union bosses, public safety is important, but constitutes a secondary consideration. Building and manning more 4 man fire stations is the top priority for our fire department union. When push comes to shove, SD FD union president Frank De Clercq is quite willing to let a few more San Diegans die each year rather than than have the firefighters improve their response times with 2 man crews. Then he will blame the deaths on the taxpayers for not paying for more 4 man fire stations (actually 13 man/person fire stations, when you consider the 24/7 manning requirement). Sadly, no union has greater pull in city hall than our beloved firefighters -- and no union cares less about our city. Indeed, most "city" firefighters don't even live in San Diego -- many don't even live in San Diego COUNTY (commuting from further north). Yet the coveted firefighter candidate endorsement carries enormous weight in city politics. Unions rule!

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin

The pension scheme and the hundreds of millions in Annual costs will be with us at least another 12 years. Huge opportunity cost. Those dollars would go along ways in bringing the firehouses online but alas.....the monies are committed to back funding the pension system. The firefighters Union had a central role in the scam.