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A 2-year-old boy choked on a gumball and later died Tuesday night in an area where fire crews were spread thin because of city budget cuts, refocusing attention on a plan that cut fire services last year to save money.

Paramedics’ response was slowed Tuesday in part because one fire engine at the nearest station had been shelved by the city’s budget cutbacks, Fire Chief Javier Mainar said at a morning press conference. The cuts make some fire engines unavailable across the city on a rotating basis, an approach known as brownouts.

Because no nearby fire engine was immediately available Tuesday, paramedics took nine-and-a-half minutes to respond. They aim to respond in less than five.

Two San Diego police officers arrived at the scene in four minutes and saw the boy was not breathing, appeared lifeless and was blue in the face, Police Chief Bill Lansdowne said. The officers tried to dislodge the gumball from the boy’s airway and gave him CPR, but could not revive him.

Bentley Do, 2, a Vietnamese boy staying with relatives in Mira Mesa, was later pronounced dead at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla.

Mainar said it was unclear whether the toddler could have been saved with a faster response by paramedics.

The Mira Mesa fire station is one of several where an engine is always unavailable for duty under the brownouts. The station’s other fire engine doubles as a citywide hazardous materials response unit, and was responding to a hazmat call in Nestor when authorities received the 911 call at 8:29 p.m.

Another nearby fire engine was unavailable because it was already responding to a different call. After police arrived at the scene, and conveyed the gravity of the situation to dispatchers, authorities routed the engine to the choking incident. Another engine from Scripps Ranch had been on its way to the incident but was called off.

When crews are available at the Mira Mesa fire station, Mainar said it typically takes two or three minutes to respond to a call in the neighborhood. He said police and fire crews did everything they could to respond to the choking incident but these types of delays were expected under the brownouts.

“The brownout plan is working as we intended it to work,” he said. “We think we have it (the planning) right.”

Mainar said his department would review the incident like any other involving a death, but he didn’t expect to find a new logistical approach to improve response times.

“There frankly is no solution for the delayed response times,” he said. “Our response times will not change in the city of San Diego with no additional resources.”

Frank De Clercq, president of the local firefighters union, was critical of the brownouts, which save $11.5 million annually.

“Our ability to get to these incidents in a timely fashion can be compromised by these brownouts,” De Clercq said at the press conference. “[Police] don’t have all the tools we have, and we may have been able to dislodge the gumball and save the young boy.”


Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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