Wednesday, February 22, 2006 | Sitting in the San Diego Fire Department’s downtown offices, Deputy Fire Chief Tracy Jarman lays out a map which details San Diego’s fire coverage.
She calls it “the five minute map.” It illustrates how long it takes the fire department to respond to fires around the city, wherever they might occur. To align with standards set by the National Fire Protection Association, SDFD should respond to an emergency within five minutes 95 percent of the time.
But SDFD can only get to a fire in five minutes 50 percent of the time – on Jarman’s map, the holes in SDFD’s fire coverage make the city of San Diego look like Swiss cheese.
And responding to fires within five minutes of their ignition is crucial because in this period, an individual could experience brain death, or a fire could “flash over” in a room.
“So if we started a fire in here,” Jarman said, “within five minutes this whole room would explode.”
San Diegans might want to find their homes on this map. And when they do, there’s about a 50-percent chance their residence is located in one of the holes. That might be worrisome, particularly if they live near dry canyons.
After firestorms ripped through San Diego County in 2003, killing 16 people and destroying more that 2,400 homes, local officials felt extreme political heat for the lack of fire protection.
Among the necessities lacking was a SDFD-owned helicopter, as well as more fire engines, fire stations and firefighters.
San Diego did institute a plan to obtain more fire engines for its aging fleet, and SDFD did become the proud owners of a new helicopter. However, the city’s inability to finance additional personnel and facilities leaves the fire department stretched thin with respect to day-to-day emergencies, and leaves the city vulnerable to “the big one.”
Jarman said that if San Diego experienced a major earthquake, a terrorist event or another large firestorm, “we’ll be challenged with the resources we currently have to put together a really good defense.”
SDFD is not only deficient however, in physical resources. Personnel issues also plague the department.
San Diego lags behind every major city in California with its firefighters-per-citizen ratio.
The city has only .69 firefighters per 1,000 citizens. Los Angeles has .85 firefighters, Sacramento 1.25 and San Francisco 2.55.
As a result of budget constraints, the fire department finds itself understaffed and unable to finance upgrades to facilities and fire engines. At the same time, its prospects of building new stations are effectively frozen as a result of the city’s inability to approach Wall Street investors for loans.
Wednesday at 2 p.m., SDFD plans to present preliminary findings of a comprehensive evaluation of the department’s status to the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee.
Fire officials said the initial assessment shows that SDFD needs 20 more fire stations and at least 400 additional firefighters to be on par with other major cities.
These requests, however, may be unrealistic under the city’s current fiscal state. Its pension deficit is pegged at about $2 billion and the mayor recently said that the city may find itself spending about one-third of its operating budget paying off the pension debt.
The fire department gathered the alarming statistics about its fire coverage as part of its effort to be certified by the International Commission on Fire Accreditation.
This certification process is one way for a city to develop a strategic plan towards meeting the needs of its citizens. About 600 cities currently take part in the ongoing process, which is conducted by the International Commission on Fire Accreditation. About 110 of these cities have been accredited.
In its presentation Wednesday, the fire department will present the findings of the first part of that accreditation process. Later, the commission will require the city to develop a five-year strategic plan and implement an integrated risk-management plan, or standard of coverage.
The study brings to light the challenges SDFD faces to protect the city from daily emergencies as well as the steps it must take to be able to prevent and manage a large-scale disaster.
While firestorms such as the ones that ripped through San Diego in 2003 are commonly thought to occur every 50 to 100 years, fire officials agree that any hot day with heavy Santa Ana winds could start another uncontrollable blaze.
“Without getting some rain, I’m extremely concerned about our upcoming fire season,” Jarman said. “The brush has grown back, there are a number of canyons that haven’t burned yet and the Cedar Fire burned just a small percentage of the canyons that run throughout the city.”
Within the city there are 23 areas filled with brush that compose more than 950 linear miles of high fire-hazard areas, many of which have homes nearby. The fire department has developed emergency response plans for these areas, which include: the Tijuana River Valley, Otay Mesa, Balboa Park, Mission Valley, Tierresanta, Scripps Ranch, Mt. Soledad, San Clemente Canyon, Sorrento Valley, Los Penasquitos and San Pasqual.
It’s all about the money
San Diego’s combination of dense towns, rolling hills and dry canyons makes the city inherently difficult to protect from fires.
But the city’s topography is not SDFD’s only problem. City Hall’s fiscal and political woes have significantly damaged the department’s operating budget. The city used to pick up most of the firefighters required contribution to their retirement fund, but this year fire personnel are seeing their paychecks take a 3-percent hit – money that will go into the fund. In addition, the city’s inability to issue bonds impedes the department’s chances of building new fire stations.
The city’s credit rating on Wall Street was suspended after it put misleading statements into previous financial disclosure documents. The pension fund’s problems have led to multiple criminal investigations, indictments and have left the city paralyzed until a bevy of high-priced consultants and contentious city leaders find a way to restore confidence in the city’s finances.
The county is also being affected by the city’s fiscal woes.
“It always falls back to the funding,” said Kevin Crawford, president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association, a group that provides a forum for fire chiefs to share ideas and develop uniformity throughout the county’s fire system. “There are a lot of roadblocks that get put up in front of the desire to improve the fire service but it always boils down to money.”
And money is something that is increasingly difficult to come by in San Diego government.
The city’s fire budget has climbed steadily from $133 million in fiscal year 2004, when the firestorms occurred, to slightly more than $160 million this year.
But nearly 85 percent of this increase has gone to personnel costs, and the city has been unable to finance repairs to and construction of fire stations throughout the city.
Along with $12 million in deferred maintenance to fire stations and lifeguard towers, the fire department is itching to erect full-blown stations in Downtown, South Bay, University City and the east and west sides of Mission Valley.
“We have a tight budget,” said Deputy Public Safety Chief Jill Olen following a press conference last week during which Mayor Jerry Sanders announced that he had put her in charge of fire, police and homeland security.
“And because of some of our past financial issues we are restricted in getting money, and so yes, we are on a tight budget right now,” Olen said.
With the city unable to fulfill all of the fire department’s needs, private entities are picking up the government’s slack.
At fire station No. 14, Captain Jamie Chapman shows off the crew’s new brush rig. Accredited Home Lenders donated the $275,000 machine – which is used to knock down fires in San Diego’s rougher terrain – after the 2003 firestorms.
Since February 2005, SDFD has received $937,000 in donations and $24 million in grants.
Olen said the city should also increasingly look to other cities, to seek out their used vehicles.
“There are jurisdictions that have a lot more money than we do, and something to them that they consider unusable now because it’s two or three years old, we would gladly be a recipient of that to help build up our fleet,” Olen said. “It’s not charity. It’s just working together and maximizing what we have.”
Shopping for lunch, fire engines
While paying for their groceries recently at a North Park store, the crew of fire station No. 14 got a message over their pagers.
“It’s a structure fire,” firefighter Kia Afsahi said as he raced toward the engine.
The rest of the crew asked store clerks to keep their groceries in the back until they could return the store and pay for them. After rushing to the scene and helping another crew knock down the blaze, the firefighters went back to the store and paid for their food.
The crew returned to the fire station – food in hand – and just as they sat down to eat lunch, the alarm went off in the firehouse. An old Spanish-speaking man had split open the back of his head when the wheels of his walker slid out from under him.
The firefighters jumped into their truck – which is the busiest in the city – and took off to the scene of the medical aid.
In the parking lot, Afsahi sat behind the wheel of the truck as the rest of his crew treated the man about 100 yards away.
But when Afsahi attempted to pull the truck forward, it jerked violently, as if he had dropped the clutch. He fiddled with the gears and again, hit the accelerator. The truck shuddered. The truck isn’t a manual transmission but it seemed bound to stall.
When Captain Jamie Chapman returned to the truck, Afsahi gave her the bad news: the truck might not even make it to the service shop, where it was scheduled for repairs later that day.
Fire crew No. 14’s situation is by no means unique in the city.
San Diego plans to incrementally take receipt of 50 new fire engines by 2012. The need to get its first round of eight new vehicles up and running is evidenced by a recent string of mechanical failures that left the department with few backup-engines.
“Typically, we have 15 reserve engines in the fleet, as our frontline engines go down, we have to take the reserve ones and put them in service,” Fire Chief Jeff Bowman said last week, shortly after two aging engines caught fire within 24 hours. “Typically I’d say on an average week, we have five in reserves, we’re just down to two right now.”
Are gray skies gonna’ clear up?
When the city of San Diego is stretched thin, the county also feels the burn.
Crawford, who is also Carlsbad Fire Chief, said that although the county is better off today then it was in 2003 – primarily because the firestorms helped to heighten awareness about fire-issues – there have not been “wholesale” changes to fire coverage.
“I’m not a naysayer, I don’t mean to say that the sky is falling,” he said. “The fire service has been notorious for 200-plus years of figuring out a way to get by with less.”
He said however, that what was bad for the city of San Diego is bad for the county of San Diego.
“They don’t have the capacity to manage the high call volume and they don’t have the capacity to help out their neighbors,” Crawford said. “There’s just no padding in the system, there’s no extra capacity in the system when it is stretched so thin.”
Jarman echoed these sentiments and gave a warning.
“I would say with the helicopter program, the radios, the new apparatus, we’re in better shape (then in 2003),” Jarman said. “But I don’t think we have the personnel and staffing and additional engine companies to be to the level we need to be able to handle that kind of stress on our 9-1-1 system.”
Editor’s Note: A fire department spokesman provided, and then repeatedly verified, an erroneous statistic on the amount of private donations the city’s fire department had received that was published in the original version of this article. The true amount is $937,000 not $937 million. The spokesman apologized for the mistake Wednesday.
Please contact Sam Hodgson directly at