Friday, Nov. 30, 2007 | The city of San Diego’s Fire-Rescue Department figures it needs 22 new fire stations in order to arrive on-time to emergency calls. The city’s former fire chief agrees. In a city where infrastructure development hasn’t kept pace with growth, the gap has grown over the last three decades — a criticism repeated earlier this week by Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
In response, the city has drafted a plan that prioritizes each new station. The plan says which is needed the most. It even answers the toughest question: How to pay for the doggone things.
Yes, the all-encompassing fire station plan — the one with all the answers — is finished. Need proof? The claim that it is finished is right there on page PF-22 of the city’s draft general plan. That’s the document that spells out how the city should grow during the next 20 years.
But if you’re wondering whether one of those stations will be coming to a neighborhood near you, good luck finding an answer.
The Fire-Rescue Department says the fire station plan actually isn’t finished.
“We’re working on it,” fire-rescue spokesman Maurice Luque said. “It’s not like a completed document I can give you.”
The document is supposed to outline a way to improve every-day response times from the city’s 45 fire stations. Throughout San Diego, newer neighborhoods have firehouses that are spread farther apart, cover more territory and provide longer response times than stations in older neighborhoods.
Fire coverage did not keep pace throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as San Diego went through a massive 20-year growth spurt. Some stations originally planned in the 1980s were delayed for more than 20 years. At least one was never built.
The city’s general plan, in the works for two years, claims to have solved the long-standing issue. Since at least September, a draft of the general plan has said the fire-rescue department had finished its fire station blueprint.
Now, the general plan sits a week away from heading to a City Council committee. But as it nears completion, the plan gives the incorrect impression that fire station planning is complete.
City Councilwoman Donna Frye said the city should not approve the general plan without first identifying how it will serve current residents.
“Instead of dealing with that issue, we’re looking to grow even bigger without identifying how we’re going to deal with the existing deficiencies,” Frye said. “And all it can do is exacerbate the situation. It can’t make it better.”
Former San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman said a fire station master plan is finished — and has been for years. The former chief said he developed a plan for building fire stations during his time with the city. He resigned in 2006, complaining that the city would not invest in needed fire infrastructure.
“They don’t want you to know how bad their system is. They want to ignore it,” Bowman said. “It’s absurd for them to say it’s not available, because it is. To me it’s offensive that they’re not willing to tell the truth. That’s all you’re getting out of these people: Lip service. And it pisses me off.”
Luque said Bowman was wrong. He would not commit to releasing or completing the document by any specific date, but said it wouldn’t be completed before the City Council votes on the general plan in January.
Bill Anderson, the city’s land use chief, said since the fire station blueprint is being drafted, the general plan was written to assume it would eventually be finished. Choosing that wording — “A master plan … has been developed” — keeps the City Council from having to revise the document once the fire station plan is completed, Anderson said.
“We’re trying to avoid having a lot of these constant amendments,” Anderson said. If the plan won’t be finished within the next year, Anderson said he might consider modifying the text “to make the tense accurate.”
As the plan is developed, it is unclear whether the City Council and mayor will make a concerted effort to increase fire coverage in existing neighborhoods — or where they would get the money to do so. While developers pay for station construction in new neighborhoods, the city would be responsible for finding the money to build and staff stations in already-developed areas with lagging coverage.
On Thursday, City Council President Scott Peters requested a detailed study from Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin to determine the exact costs of such a plan. Peters said some new stations are needed, but questioned whether it was “realistic to put in all 22 the fire department wants.”
Turning to voters for the funding could be problematic. After the Cedar Fire, voters rejected two separate hotel-tax increases marketed as efforts to help boost fire protection funding.
“It’s not easy,” said Fred Sainz, spokesman for Mayor Jerry Sanders. “Because a lot of these new fire stations would not be in new areas of the city. They would be in urbanized areas of the city. The land is very costly already and it’s already largely developed. The solutions are not easy and they are definitely not cheap.”