Tuesday, June 23, 2009 | When responding to an emergency, San Diego Fire-Rescue crews have an important decision to make: What route will allow them to arrive on scene the fastest?

They base their decision on experience, common sense and their knowledge of local roads. Dispatchers also provide advice, warning about any major road closures in the way.

Caltrans provides the information about road closures caused by construction, faxing the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department and other regional emergency responders a detailed closure list each afternoon. Fire-Rescue dispatchers look for major blockages and enter them into the department’s computer-aided dispatch system. They use that information to route fire engines and ambulances around problematic closures.

Dispatchers assume the closure list is accurate. “Absolutely,” said Fire-Rescue Capt. Dena Sickels. “That’s why they’re sending us the fax.”

But a voiceofsandiego.org review found the list of closures widely inaccurate on a recent weekday night. Of 126 scheduled closures that voiceofsandiego.org verified, just 18 were shut down. Eighty-six percent of the closures checked across the county were actually open.

A reporter and photographer traveled on Interstates 5 and 15 and on Highways 56, 52 and 163 to verify closures. While construction equipment was visible at many open sites, crews weren’t present at a majority of places where and when Caltrans said they would be.

Several local emergency officials said those inaccuracies have the potential to delay responses. San Diego Fire-Rescue officials said their crews may be detouring around closures that don’t exist, unnecessarily slowing emergency responders — a sensitive issue in a region where firefighting infrastructure has failed to keep pace with decades of population growth.

“It’s always a concern,” said Jeff Carle, San Diego Fire-Rescue’s assistant chief for operations. “We can’t get everywhere we need to get within six minutes. This is another factor. Could you be taking a longer route because you have bad information? It’s absolutely possible.”

When responding to a call, fire and ambulance crews can’t test a closure to see if it’s in effect, Carle said, they must reroute accordingly. Several local fire officials said they weren’t aware of any specific incidents arising from false closures. But they said the list should be accurate.

Not all false closures were equal. Some were single lanes on a five-lane freeway, hardly something to avoid. Others amounted to major obstacles that had the potential to unnecessarily send rescuers out of their way.

On paper, the Carroll Canyon Road interchange looked like a nightmare on the night voiceofsandiego.org surveyed closures. Caltrans said the on- and off-ramps would be closed to Interstate 15 from Carroll Canyon Road for eight hours for construction. The interstate was also supposed to be closed there, all six lanes in both directions from 12:30 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. Same with the two-lane bridge over the interstate, from 9:01 p.m. to 5:01 a.m.

All of it was open around 2:30 a.m.

Fire-Rescue Capt. Doug Nakama, who’s stationed nearby, said he’s learned to stop relying on Caltrans’ notifications about the Carroll Canyon interchange. He avoids it altogether at night. Even though it’s the fastest way to respond to car crashes on Interstate 15, he said he doesn’t want to take a chance. Nakama said he never wants to make a U-turn because the interchange is closed when he’s responding to a life-and-death emergency.

He said he’d use the interchange if he knew for sure that it was open. But Caltrans’ notifications are “nothing I depend on,” Nakama said. “You’ve got to use more common sense than anything. If it’s at night, I know it’s closed. If it’s daytime, I know it’s open.”

Instead, he loops north to Mira Mesa Boulevard, adding a mile of travel over city streets. Or he heads south to Miramar Road, adding a quarter-mile of city streets. He said it doesn’t add much time to responses because there’s little traffic at night.

Many closures were scheduled in the Interstate 15 corridor, where miles of road projects are underway. Access from Miramar Road, Mira Mesa Boulevard, Poway Road and Mercy Road was supposed to be limited by closures. They were open, though many of them had signs warning of closures. Exiting traffic swished past.

False closures were found throughout the county. The north- and south-bound onramps from Santa Fe Drive to Interstate 5 were supposed to be closed for nine hours for bridge work. They weren’t. No workers were present.

On the Requeza Street bridge over Interstate 5 in Encinitas, traffic was scheduled to be narrowed from two lanes to one from 8:01 p.m. to 5:01 a.m. It was wide open just before midnight, when the street was silent but for the occasional passing car.

Caltrans notifies firefighters and rescue teams about the closures because of their potential to affect response routes. A Caltrans spokesman said the agency doesn’t alert emergency responders about late cancellations because their plans for rerouting are already in place.

The local Caltrans spokesman, Ed Cartagena, agreed to respond only to questions submitted by e-mail. He wrote that local fire departments understand that posted closures may not happen on a specified night.

Carle, the assistant chief, said San Diego Fire-Rescue did not know that posted closures might be open. He and other local fire officials said they assume closures are happening and want to know if they’re not.

“Misinformation or inaccurate information from Caltrans could potentially cause delays in response routing,” said Augie Ghio, chief of the San Miguel Fire Protection District. “It is important for it to be as accurate as possible.”

Ghio said he would raise the issue at the July meeting of the San Diego Fire Chiefs’ Association to determine whether it had been a problem in other fire districts. Ghio is the association’s president.

Jeff Bowman, San Diego’s former fire chief, also said the issue merited a deeper look. “That data is important,” he said. “It’s something that should be followed up on, that’s for sure.”

Cartagena questioned the voiceofsandiego.org sample, saying the agency’s road-closure notification system “cannot be accurately depicted with a one-night sampling, especially since freeway construction and maintenance work takes place most weekdays throughout the year in this region of the state.” He said the error rate could be higher or lower.

So a reporter and photographer went back out overnight Monday and verified 55 closures that Caltrans announced. The list was again inaccurate: 51 percent of the closures were actually open.

Caltrans would not provide any estimate of its error rate for this story despite repeated requests. A Caltrans official who oversees lane closures said the agency completed a report on the topic in 2006-07, but the agency’s spokesman wouldn’t provide it to voiceofsandiego.org in time for this story.

Cartagena said Caltrans’ contractors plan multi-night closures to give themselves a window in which to do roadwork. Caltrans’ internal policies require contractors to provide a week’s notice of any project that will need road closures. Caltrans uses the information to ensure that consecutive interchanges won’t be closed.

Caltrans also uses it to route oversized vehicles around closures. Because of their size, some tall loads need to avoid certain bridges on area interstates so they don’t strike the bridge. Other wide loads need to avoid lanes narrowed by construction. Caltrans estimates that it annually issues 250,000 wide-load permits statewide.

Moe Bhuyian, regional manager of the Caltrans office in San Bernardino that issues wide-load permits, said he frequently gets complaints from the trucking industry about false closures. But truckers are wrong “99 percent” of the time, Bhuyian said, because they may not see all the construction that’s happening.

Contractors are required to notify Caltrans of canceled closures two business days beforehand. When a contractor notifies Caltrans that a closure isn’t needed, it’s removed from Caltrans’ system, Cartagena said.

The closure notification system is a work in progress, Cartagena said. Caltrans would like to relay information in real-time to emergency responders and the public, he said.

Caltrans came close to doing that Monday, sending its list of nightly closures to the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department at 6:10 p.m., less than two hours before most went into effect.

Still, half the information was wrong.

Pedro Orso-Delgado, Caltrans’ district director, said in a phone interview that he hadn’t gotten complaints about the system from local fire departments during the last eight years. “I haven’t heard that it’s a prevailing problem,” he said.

He said if the system was creating problems, “We’ll fix it.”

Staff photographer Sam Hodgson contributed to this report.

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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