The city’s top three mayoral candidates can agree on one thing: The city must improve its emergency response times, and that the effort will involve building new fire stations.

But as the candidates address those new fire stations, a couple different numbers have emerged.

Councilman David Alvarez offered his assessment in his mayoral blueprint released last week.

“The only way to solve (the city’s emergency response) problem is to invest in critically needed equipment and personnel, including 19 new fire stations across San Diego,” Alvarez wrote.

Fellow Councilman Kevin Faulconer cited a much smaller number in the neighborhood plan he released earlier this week.

“The Citygate report, a comprehensive study of San Diego’s Fire-Rescue needs, helped the city create a plan to improve emergency response times in these communities and recommends adding five new stations to improve response times,” Faulconer wrote.

Alvarez and Faulconer’s numbers differ but they both come from the same report.

In 2011, consultant Citygate Associates evaluated the Fire-Rescue Department and its ability to respond to calls for help.

The Folsom, Calif.-based firm found that the city would need to build as many as 19 new fire stations to meet its goal to arrive at the scene of most emergencies within seven minutes and 30 seconds.

The consultant included this list in its 2011 report.

The top five neighborhoods most at risk of long waits for emergency aid are within 9 1/2 miles south and east of downtown San Diego.

They are: the area around Home Avenue in City Heights, Paradise Hills, College area, Skyline and Encanto.

Faulconer focused on those areas in his neighborhood plan.

The Citygate report said most of those spots require new fire stations.

Alvarez’s neighborhood blueprint incorporated those same five areas of need in his recommendation for 19 new stations.

But the Citygate report didn’t just advocate for 19 new fire stations – it offered a potential alternative for nine of the 19 areas it said merited improved service.

Citygate recommended that the city immediately design a pilot program to create fast-response squads  that could more quickly address demands in some of the city’s neighborhoods. The two-member crews would include a fire captain and a paramedic, and they would work during periods when firefighters tend to receive the most calls for help. Citygate reviewers said Encanto – one of the five neighborhoods most at risk for a late response— was eligible for this option.

The two-person teams cost much less than building a fire station, and take much less time to assemble. Earlier this year, Fire Chief Javier Mainar estimated each squad would cost $769,000; the city has found it would need to spend $12 million, which includes a year of staffing, for each new fire station.

But the city hasn’t made progress on the fire stations or the response squads more than two years since Citygate issued its report.

Mainar and the president of the city’s fire union have both said they’d prefer to see the city focus on fire stations first.

“My intent is to keep the focus on the greatest benefit for the greatest number,” Mainar told Voice of San Diego last month.

Fire union president Frank De Clercq said he’d like the city to build at least four new fire stations before it adds the two-person crew in Encanto, which is No. 5 on the city’s priority list for new stations. Adding those facilities could take years.

In his plan, Faulconer acknowledged the challenges associated with funding the stations and suggested a two-person squad or another approach might improve responses in Skyline more quickly.

“To make immediate progress on improving emergency response times, the city must explore innovative solutions to better leverage resources to make immediate progress in reducing emergency response times, such as constructing a temporary fire station in the Skyline community,” Faulconer wrote.

Alvarez seems to want the fire stations first.

Alvarez said in a Tuesday statement that he thinks the 19 new fire stations are the top priority to provide a network of coverage, though two-person squads may be necessary due to the city’s unique terrain.

“We can add the response teams sooner, but they aren’t a replacement for the fire stations,” he said.

But Alvarez wouldn’t directly address whether he’d push for the fast-response squads while residents wait for stations that could take years, or even decades to materialize.

“I will implement the Citygate report’s recommendations, including building more fire stations and pursuing two-man fast response squads,” Alvarez said. “I want to move as quickly as possible, and so will try to implement as many of the Citygate recommendations as possible by the end of my first term.”

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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