In early March, I spoke at the Rancho Peñasquitos Town Council.

I was only one of several, actually. Like all similar groups, the Town Council heard reports from staffers of local political offices and the police and fire departments.

When it was the firefighter’s turn to speak, she came to the front and acknowledged that she was being joined that night by another firefighter. He could only be there, she said, because his engine was out of service as part of the city’s rolling brownouts.

It has now been a year since the city of San Diego started the brownouts. It seems less like a temporary crisis-management situation than simply the way things are now.

When the firefighter was done with her updates, a resident asked her to explain something: How could the city build a new fire station downtown when it’s in a situation like this?

The firefighter smiled and said she’d have to ask the chief.

I’d love to hear what the chief gave her as an answer. But I can give it a shot.

They’re going to build the new fire station on the corner of Cedar and Pacific Highway in Little Italy — right across the street from the County Administration Building and adjacent to a bathhouse. It’s an ideal location, actually, though it currently houses a taco shop. It’s called the Bayside Fire Station but it’s not quite on the bay.

The plan is to move one fire engine from downtown’s other fire station — the less creatively named Fire Station 1 — to the new facility.

Fire Station 1 will be left with one engine and one truck. The engine will still be subject to brownouts if full service is not restored.

Ingest this for a minute.

They’re building a new fire station, at a cost of $24 million, not to increase coverage of downtown but to just move one fire engine and its crew 0.7 miles to the west.

Now, let’s be fair. The true advantage of the new fire station is not necessarily that it’s in Little Italy or next to the bathhouse. The thing we’re supposed to be most excited about is that it’s on the west side of the railroad and trolley tracks. If an emergency happens at, say, the airport or the Midway Museum, we no longer have to worry about a trolley delaying the engine as it waits to cross the tracks.

On the other hand, it also means that a fire engine is stuck on the west side of the tracks if there’s an emergency on the east side. And, if Fire Station 1 is browned out, then we’ve just sacrificed coverage on the east side for coverage on the west side.

Now, $24 million is far more than is needed to end the brownouts. You could seed an anti-brownout endowment, in fact, for that much money and help subsidize fire department operations with the interest it spews off for many years.

But not with this $24 million. It’s part of the infamous pot of untouchable dinero — redevelopment — that can only be used to build things.

If not for redevelopment, they are property tax dollars that would have gone to education, county services and everyday city services — you know, like staff for fire engines.

It’s great for construction firms and their workers. And it’s going to be great for Little Italy residents (though maybe not for those who liked the taco shop on that corner).

But it’s yet another example of the multiple personalities of this region. We have resources available to build a new fire station so that we can move an engine not even a mile away from where it was, but we don’t have the resources to actually staff it with new equipment or new firefighters. In fact, the new facility may actually negatively affect fire protection for the east side of downtown, if the Fire Station 1 is browned out and the Bayside engine has to wait for a train to pass.

I think that answers the resident’s question: This is how a city could be building a new fire station when it can’t staff the ones it has already.

But after writing it, I only have more questions.

You can contact me directly at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!): twitter.com/vosdscott.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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