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The voiceofsandiego.org has done some terrific investigative reporting on city government and its politicians. Unfortunately, the recent article “As San Diego Grew, Firefighting Didn’t Keep Up” — comparing our city’s firefighting assets today with 1970 — failed to live up to its usual high journalist standards.

The entire article is 100 percent dependent on input from pro-union firefighter allies, with zero input from alternative viewpoints. Here’s some points the article should have mentioned, but didn’t:

1. Any reasonable increase in the number city firefighters — even a doubling of our force — would not have stopped the brush fires. Firefighters admit this. It is misleading to indicate that any perceived shortage of San Diego firefighters and trucks was a significant factor in not stopping the major brush fires of 1970, 2003, or 2007.

2. Compared to 1970, today we have significantly fewer serious structure fires. We now produce more fire resistant buildings (especially roofs), furniture and textiles — and FAR fewer people smoke tobacco — than in 1970. Thus, with the exception of the relatively rare wind-driven brush fire conflagration, as a percent of the population, San Diego should have fewer firefighters today than in 1970.

3. Proposition 13, which reduced property taxes, did not cause any long term funding shortage. Collectively, our county’s property owners this year will pay about $7.00 for every $1.00 paid the year BEFORE Prop 13 took effect in 1978 — more than enough to cover our 300 percent increase in inflation and 53 percent increase in population since 1977. The argument can be made that property tax revenue is being misallocated, but that’s not the fault of Prop. 13.

In addition, in 1993, California voters approved Prop 172, a half cent sales tax for public safety. It was passed in response to the devastating Oakland fires, so most voters thought the money was primarily for fire protection. It was to be shared with the cities in proportion to the amount of tax paid. Instead, apparently just about all San Diego County proceeds have all been spent on sheriffs and county district attorneys (primarily salaries and pensions), with none allocated for our local cities’ fire protection.

4. Our city’s fire department budget has soared since 1970 — but the money has gone primarily for generous pay increases and today’s huge pension payouts. This leaves little funding for what people really want — improved fire PROTECTION.

5. The article laments our city’s inability to meet the touted “national accrediting agency’s standard of responding to 90 percent of calls within five minutes” certification. But that “accrediting standard” is a wildly unrealistic, bogus benchmark. It was an arbitrary, made-up standard adopted by fire department bureaucrats and contractors in the National Fire Prevention Association — to push for bigger budgets.

According to a 2006 report from Department of Homeland Security, nationwide, firefighters respond to calls in under five minutes less than 50 percent of the time. It is doubtful that any significantly sized city even comes close to having a 90 percent response time performance record — some “accrediting” standard! Furthermore, as one would expect, such response times are better in the East than in the West because of their higher population densities.

That being said, I strongly agree that there are critical reforms we desperately need to adopt in order to improve our firefighting response to the occasional major fires that sweep through our county. For instance, read my recent North County Times column suggesting three new strategies we need to consider.

New emergency firefighting alternatives are our best options. Innovative new policies can be less expensive and much more effective than simply spending a lot more money for a relative handful of additional full-time professional firefighters to deal with emergencies that come along once every four to 15 years. 

— RICHARD RIDER

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