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Wednesday, June 21, 2006 | In February, then-Deputy Fire Chief Tracy Jarman showed a reporter from voiceofsandiego.org a chilling map. She called it a “five-minute map.”
It showed how much of the city the fire department could reach within five minutes of receiving a call.
You probably don’t want to see that map. There’s a 50 percent chance that your house isn’t in one of the “five-minute” areas.
We’re fast approaching the third anniversary of the devastating Cedar Fire. Many people trace the unraveling of the city to that seminal event. San Diego was burning and we didn’t have the tools available to effectively stop it. We’re not a poor city, and the mismanagement that caused us to be so vulnerable seared a cynicism into some San Diegans that has yet to abet. Our leaders have given us little reason to let it.
Jarman openly admitted recently that even so long after the fires, San Diego is simply not ready for a “big event.” If we experience an earthquake, another uncontrollable firestorm or a major terrorist attack, the fire department is not ready to handle it.
Now, the mayor has appointed Jarman fire chief. We applaud that decision. There is no more knowledgeable person at the department than Jarman and she has a refreshing matter-of-fact way of describing challenges.
But she has many challenges.
Three years after those deadly fires, most San Diegans have forgotten just how ill-quipped we were, and how little has been done to remedy those problems. A tax on tourists to boost fire budgets failed twice. Our populace seems content to make due with what we have.
But the fire department has a communications system that many say will simply fail some day soon. The city has a helicopter, now, and a few pieces of equipment that can help fight fires like the Cedar, but not near the number of firefighters nor the stations the city knows it desperately needs.
Downtown has tens of thousands of new residents but the same amount of fire protection it had decades ago.
The list goes on. Jarman has plenty of challenges. How many of them would be as difficult as they are if it weren’t for the pension crisis? The city is sending $75 million more to its retirement system this year than it did the year the Cedar Fire struck. Yet the pension fund’s deficit continues to grow. And this year’s payment to the system is a weak one, liable only to make the pension deficit grow. How many helicopters would $75 million buy?
City leaders, including the still empowered firefighters union president, had terrible, if not criminal, priorities in mind as they handled city budgets in the past. The city’s residents are poorly protected now because of that. And now we watch a confusing paradox unfold: Even while the city brings in millions more in revenue than in previous years, the public safety infrastructure continues to crumble.
What will happen if property taxes don’t pour in at this rate in the future?
Jarman quite clearly knows what’s wrong with the fire department. And she’ll share it with anyone who will listen. We hope she continues to be frank and direct with her diagnoses. But for now, no matter how well she manages, the crisis will not subside until we have the proper infrastructure, apparatus and personnel in that department. Former and current city officials have strapped generations to come with a crushing pension deficit that will continue to suck money away from priorities like public safety.
Until we candidly deal with these obligations – through land sales and taxes – or eliminate them – through legal actions or bankruptcy – the pension deficit will continue to tie down city budgets, thereby starving fire protection into the next generation.
The only other honest option is to begin planning now and execute massive cuts in less important areas than public safety.
Unfortunately, nobody wants to cut anything. And so we turn to Jarman with the hope that she can make do.
She’ll surely do the best she can. Here’s to providing her the tools she needs to do her job.