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At a committee hearing in March, San Diego City Council members wondered what had happened to the two-person fire crews designed to help get first responders to emergencies faster. They asked Fire-Rescue Chief Javier Mainar to deliver a report on the crews’ status.
Almost six months later, no report exists. No one agrees why.
Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who heads the public safety committee where the report was supposed to be heard, blamed Councilman Mark Kersey. She said he never followed up after the request for the report happened at the committee he leads. Kersey’s office pointed out that Emerald was the one who had asked for the report, something noted in the committee hearing’s minutes. At first, Mainar didn’t recall that anyone had wanted a report. After being reminded that he spoke at the hearing where the request was made, Mainar said he talked to Emerald’s staff and reminded them they had touched on the issue a month earlier. No one followed up with him after that, he said.
This situation provides a small window into how the city has allowed its problems with delayed emergency response to fester. Almost two years after promising to improve response times in neighborhoods at the greatest risk for delays, the city has put no money toward the two-person crews or any new fire stations recommended by fire consultant Citygate to get rescuers to emergencies quicker.
“If I were to look at my Citygate time schedule, I would say, ‘What the hell is going on?’” Emerald said.
She noted that the city has paid to improve in-station alarm systems and funded a new station to replace a makeshift, temporary one in Mission Valley. But nothing has been done about Home Avenue in City Heights, Paradise Hills, College Area, Skyline or Encanto, the five neighborhoods clustered within 9 ½ square miles that have the greatest risk for a late response in the city.
Encanto is the fifth neighborhood on the list, but the first where a two-person crew rather than a full fire house might resolve its response time problems, according to Citygate’s recommendations. Two-person crews cost much less than new fire stations. A station costs about $12 million, including a year of staffing. The latest estimate for a two-person crew is $769,000 a year.
The crew would have a fire captain and paramedic – 87 percent of the department’s annual dispatches are for medical emergencies – and serve between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. daily, the time when the department is busiest. It would spend six months in Encanto, and the rest of the year in Liberty Station, the next neighborhood where the consultant recommended implementing a two-person team. Then the department would evaluate how well it worked.
At the March Council committee hearing and other times over the past two years, Council members have talked about trying to get the crews in place.
City officials had hoped that businesses would sponsor the program, but talks with the city’s corporate sponsorship department went nowhere. Natasha Collura, the city’s director of strategic partnerships, said businesses would be reluctant to back a program with no history and no guarantee that it would continue.
“Spending $800,000 on a pilot program is just a difficult decision for any company,” Collura said.
So the two-person crew idea now is fighting for the same pool of dollars as everything else. And it looks like it’s at the back of the line.
Emerald said she hoped the city could open up its budget in January to pay to design new stations on Home Avenue and in Paradise Hills. Design costs for each are about the same as a year of a two-person crew. Mainar said he’d like to get the pilot program going, but would prefer to see the new stations.
“My intent is to keep the focus on the greatest benefit for the greatest number,” Mainar said.
Fire union president Frank De Clercq said he backed the concept, but if he got his way the crews wouldn’t happen for a long time. He said he wanted the four full stations ahead of Encanto on the neighborhood priority list built first, if not all 10 of the full stations recommended by Citygate before the city tried out a two-person crew.
“We didn’t create the fact that they haven’t addressed the situation here,” De Clercq said.
Still, Emerald said the reminder about the missing report on the two-person crews made her want to speak with Mainar about them. Her public safety committee will be focusing on fire-rescue issues over the next two months, she said, and the two-person crews could be an issue they discuss again.