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The call came over the radio at 12:31 p.m. on a summer afternoon while San Diego Fire Engine 12 was driving along the edge of Radio Canyon in Encanto. Female. 47 years old. Possible stroke. Valencia Park. The engine switched on its lights and sirens and away it went.

Rolling rural hillside homes gave way to small urban apartments. Before the engine reached Imperial Avenue, more lights flashed, bells rang and a trolley crossing arm lurched downward, blocking the engine’s way.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

“Awwww,” howled Chad Willenberg, the engine’s driver. Willenberg whipped a right turn on a narrow thoroughfare to get across the trolley tracks. Engine 12 arrived at the woman’s home at 12:37; an ambulance was already on the scene. Discounting the ambulance, Engine 12 still made it – barely – within the Fire-Rescue Department’s seven-minute, 30-second goal of delivering a first responder to a medical emergency.

Oftentimes, the engine isn’t so lucky.

Engine 12 showed up late to high-priority medical calls more frequently than any other first responder over a 21-month period ending in March 2013, according to a Voice of San Diego analysis. The engine company missed the department’s seven minute, 30-second standard an average of almost twice a day.

Engine 12 serves Encanto and parts of Skyline, two of the five San Diego neighborhoods with the greatest risk for a delayed emergency response.

The effort to respond to the stroke call gives a clue to one reason why. Engine 12 covers a lot of ground over seven square miles, a size in the largest third of city engine districts. It stretches from urban development in Chollas View, to suburban cul-de-sacs in Emerald Hills, to rural hills in Encanto. The engine has to deal with both trolley tracks and rustic canyons blocking its way.

“We go to some calls and you get there and dude’s got like 20 goats in the back,” said David Gerboth, a fire captain on Engine 12. “Chickens, too.”

Map of San Diego Fire Engine 12's District

Demographics and the history of the city’s development also play a role. Racist housing policies starting in the 1920s forced minority residents, who were often poor, into southeastern San Diego. Later, the construction of highways and interstates divided neighborhoods and reinforced segregation.

Newer communities, mainly in northern San Diego, benefit from a tax structure that makes developers pay for fire stations when they built homes. The city’s day-to-day budget was supposed to pick up the slack in older neighborhoods, but never did.

The effects linger. The neighborhoods remain lower-income and underserved. Gerboth, the fire captain, said most of the people calling 911 in Engine 12’s district have state-provided health insurance and the crew has to deal with the effects of persistent drug and alcohol abuse.

The Fire-Rescue Department says it’s no mystery why Engine 12 has more delayed responses than anyone else.

“If you are looking for a ‘smoking gun’ there isn’t one,” department spokesman Maurice Luque said.  “Service gaps are the reasons.”

Two years ago, the City Council said it would build new fire stations to fill gaps in the five highest-risk neighborhoods. The Council hasn’t put any money toward them. The nearly $12 million price tag, which includes a year of staffing, for each new station helps explain why it hasn’t happened.

Encanto is different, and city leaders have fewer excuses for inaction. The city agreed to install a two-person team operating out of a storefront/SUV in Encanto rather than build a full fire house. The team is projected to cost up to $1 million a year. No one has put any money toward it, either.

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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