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Determination: Mostly True
Analysis: The controversial budget plan that shelved up to eight San Diego fire engines a day and became the rallying cry for a failed November tax increase ended Friday. The plan, commonly called brownouts, saved the city millions of dollars in overtime costs but put residents — especially those in northern suburbs like Mira Mesa and Rancho Peñasquitos — at greater risk by slowing response times to emergency calls.
Citing those slower response times, the City Council voted last month to add $11.5 million to firefighters’ budget to restore the idled engines. Discussing the vote with NBC7 San Diego, Emerald said the engines needed to come back because response times were worsening.
“We were seeing this steady, slow rise,” Emerald said. “I made it clear to my colleagues and they joined me in telling the Mayor’s Office that if those engines are not restored — all of them — come July 1, I will not support the budget going forward.”
The steady, slow rise that Emerald described attracted our attention because that’s not how firefighters have previously portrayed the brownouts’ impact. Fire Chief Javier Mainar has said that response times stabilized shortly after the brownouts were implemented.
So we circled back to Mainar’s monthly reports to the City Council and found that response times have steadily risen in recent months, bolstering Emerald’s description, but not by a dramatic margin, bolstering Mainar’s description.
It took the first fire truck or engine an average of five minutes and 13 seconds to respond between June 2010 and May 2011 — 10 seconds longer than the average response a year earlier. During the first few months of brownouts, by comparison, Mainar reported the citywide average response time had increased to five seconds longer than the previous year.
The Fire-Rescue Department reported the biggest rise in response times recently, as the City Council ramped up its budget discussions and decided to end the plan to shelve fire engines on a rolling basis.
But while citywide response times increased by a few seconds, it’s worth noting that neighborhoods near the browned out fire stations noticed steeper impacts. In some places, firefighters reported that average response times had slowed by nearly a minute and in others, 15 to 30 seconds. It was these shifts, not citywide averages, which concerned firefighters the most.
Among the 13 neighborhoods near fire stations affected by brownouts, the first fire truck or engine arrived an average of 15 to 20 seconds slower than the previous year, according to an analysis of the Mainar’s monthly reports.
In an email, Mainar said he didn’t know why citywide response times have worsened recently. He said numerous factors outside of the department’s control, such as an incident’s location, traffic and call volume, can impact response times.
“Since we made no changes to the brownout plan or our response plans in the last few months, I believe the slight increase is most likely attributable to the natural variation issue,” he wrote.
Though it isn’t clear why response times got progressively slower after brownouts started, we’ve stamped Emerald’s statement Mostly True. She accurately described the information in Mainar’s reports but it’s also important to note that the shift amounts to a few seconds over a matter of months.
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