Statement: “I have my press conference here because in the 25 square miles that’s represented by this fire station, which is half the size, by the way, of the city of San Francisco, there is one fire truck and there is maybe a cop on duty. And if they’re called to different places we have nothing in this community,” Mayor Bob Filner said at a Nov. 15 press conference at Fire Station 33 in Rancho Bernardo.

Determination: Mostly True

Analysis: New Mayor Bob Filner vows to restore services and staffing to the city’s public safety departments after years of belt-tightening.

Filner repeated this pledge during a Nov. 15 press conference at a Rancho Bernardo fire station and noted that the location was the ideal setting for such a conversation because when firefighters assigned to the station respond to a call, the community is left without its first responders.

At least one local news station repeated Filner’s claim so we decided to check it out.

Let’s start with his comment about the area the station covers. A San Diego fire spokesman quickly confirmed that Fire Station 33 is San Diego’s only station in Rancho Bernardo, a suburb in the far northeastern reaches of the city mostly surrounded by other cities and backcountry areas.

Its location is significant because hundreds of homes in the area were destroyed in a 2007 wildfire. As we wrote earlier this year, Rancho Bernardo residents remain haunted by the fires. The neighborhood got three more fire marshals after the calamitous fire but no new stations. A city-commissioned study released last year suggested three spots within minutes of Rancho Bernardo should get specialized response squads to assist with calls but some southern portions of the city took higher priority.

So for now, firefighters who work out of the Rancho Bernardo station are considered the only first responders assigned to the 25.4 square-mile area surrounding it. Filner is correct that the area is roughly half the size of San Francisco, which covers 46.9 square miles.

But what about the fire truck and Filner’s statement that when its firefighters are responding elsewhere, “we have nothing in this community”?

Those details are less straightforward.

Station 33 actually has three fire vehicles: a fire engine that responds to fires and medical emergencies, a brush truck designed to carry hundreds of gallons of water and an ambulance — not just one truck, as Filner indicated.

At any given time, about six firefighters are working out of the fire station, which is located near Rancho Bernardo Road and Bernardo Center Drive, San Diego Fire-Rescue spokesman Maurice Luque said.

Four of those firefighters are part of a crew that works on either the brush truck or the fire engine. They can only use one vehicle at a time. And obviously, the crew leaves the station to respond to 911 calls.

“Filner is correct when he says if crew is busy with a call there’s nothing left in Rancho Bernardo. That is correct,” Luque said. “There is nothing left in the community that is ours and we have to rely on other agencies to come into the community.”

Relying on other agencies is key.

Other communities surrounding Rancho Bernardo are automatically assigned to calls there if city firefighters are occupied. Dispatchers pick the fire crew that’s closest to the emergency to respond first.

Poway’s fire department is one agency that works closely with the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.

The closest Poway fire station is about three miles east of the Rancho Bernardo station. Other Poway stations are about 10 to 15 minutes south.

If Poway firefighters are busy, San Diego can also call on firefighters in Escondido or Rancho Santa Fe, Luque said.

Filner said there aren’t any firefighters left “in this community” when the Station 33 crew responds to other calls.

He’s technically correct. If the sole Station 33 crew is occupied, there aren’t any San Diego firefighters waiting for 911 calls in Rancho Bernardo, but the regional automatic aid system ensures there’s someone responding to an emergency.

And though Filner misstated the number of fire trucks, the Station 33 fire crew can only use one of them at any given time. Two paramedics assigned to the ambulance work separately.

We decided to label Filner’s claim “mostly true” because it leaves out those important nuances.

Most crucial is this: Rancho Bernardo residents don’t have to worry that firefighters won’t respond to a fire if the Rancho Bernardo crew is already out on a call. A fire crew will respond — and it may take more or less time for an Escondido or Poway crew to arrive than a Rancho Bernardo crew, depending on the location of the emergency.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa.halverstadt@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0528.

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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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