Statement: “On average, the San Diego Fire Department responds to about 250 calls per day. On those heavy rain days, it spiked up to about 450 calls,” Deputy Fire Chief Ken Malbrough said at a press conference Jan. 5 about the city’s response to December storms.
Determination: Barely True
Analysis: In two cloudy December days, more rain fell on San Diego than in the previous eight months. Business halted in Mission Valley. Homes were evacuated. Potholes worsened. Qualcomm Stadium looked like a pool.
City officials estimate the seven-day storm, which dropped five inches of rain, caused $6 million in damage. In its aftermath, the city declared a state of emergency, hoping to recoup some of the costs through state or federal funding.
At a Jan. 5 press conference with city leaders, Malbrough put the Fire-Rescue Department’s feats in perspective: It responded to 450 incidents per day during the storm’s peak, nearly double the 250 daily average. “You can imagine we were very stretched with our resources in order to fulfill our services to the citizens,” he said.
But Malbrough actually understated the daily average: The fire department typically handles 320 calls a day, not 250. His estimate gives a slightly inflated portrayal of the department’s response to the weather.
The storm didn’t nearly double the number of calls to which the department normally responded. While Malbrough estimated a 200-incident gap between the storm’s peak and the annual average, the actual gap was 126 incidents. The peak was certainly unusual — it was the busiest day of the year — but still less dramatic than Malbrough described.
The graphic below compares the number of incidents each day throughout the storm and the annual average. During the first three days, the rate fell below the average.
Malbrough did not respond to an email and call seeking comment.
Fire-Rescue Department spokesman Maurice Luque said he didn’t know why Malbrough used a lower estimate of the annual average, but said the department was very busy during the storm and the statistic may have been provided by time-crunched staff.
Since Malbrough accurately described the storm’s peak and the basic point he was make still holds up, the statement contains an element of truth and can’t be ruled entirely False. However, Malbrough still understated the daily average.
We label a statement Barely True when it contains an element of truth but fails to provide crucial context that may significantly change its impression.
Ultimately, we decided that the gap portrayed by juxtaposing the two numbers varied enough from reality to be considered a crucial piece of context. Had the comparison been completely accurate, it would not have been as extreme as Malbrough portrayed.
It’s a difference that may have changed the statement’s impression, fitting our definition for Barely True.
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