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Analysis: The county has spent millions bolstering fire resources for San Diego County’s sparsely populated backcountry areas since 2003, when the Cedar Fire barreled through the Cleveland National Forest and into some eastern San Diego neighborhoods. The wind-fueled blaze left 15 dead and destroyed more than 2,230 homes.
County Supervisor Dianne Jacob and other regional leaders spoke extensively about those reforms late last month as San Diegans remembered the deadly fire on its 10-year anniversary.
In an Oct. 26 interview with 10 News, Jacob cited improvements the county has made since it created the San Diego County Fire Authority. Among them, she claimed, was the fact that the authority provided around-the-clock staffing at 54 backcountry fire stations.
Before the 10 News interview, Jacob made a similar claim in a U-T San Diego op-ed but provided more context.
“(The county) ensured around-the-clock fire and emergency services coverage at 54 backcountry fire stations. The Fire Authority is addressing seasonal staffing gaps at a few of the outposts,” Jacob wrote.
We decided to fact check Jacob’s comments to 10 News because the Cedar Fire highlighted a lack of regional preparedness and insufficient collaboration between fire agencies. That said, securing 24/7 staffing at 54 backcountry stations would be a significant feat.
In June 2008, the County Board of Supervisors voted to create the San Diego County Fire Authority, which aimed to consolidate the patchwork of volunteer, independent and state fire protection efforts in the county’s backcountry. Teaming up with Cal Fire, the oversight body placed state fire stations, volunteer fire companies and two fire protection districts under the same system.
The county has also invested in better communication systems for residents and firefighters. County officials created a cell phone app and established AlertSanDiego, a system that allows residents to sign up for cell phone and email alerts about county emergencies.
And the fire stations that currently fall under the authority’s umbrella are now bound together with a shared dispatch system. This means if a brush fire ignites in Campo and the fire crews there aren’t available, state firefighters who work close by can respond instead.
Here’s the authority’s April organizational chart featuring 55 stations. Two have since left the Fire Authority.
Some of the 53 stations that remain are staffed by full-time firefighters, or a mix of professionals and volunteers. Eighteen are manned by volunteers. Jacob’s reference to 54 stations includes Borrego Springs, which has received county funding for an ambulance and staffing needs but isn’t officially part of the Fire Authority, said a county spokeswoman.
Unit Chief Thom Porter, who directs the Fire Authority’s firefighting efforts, said backcountry residents have received better care and faster responses since the umbrella group was established.
With each call, firefighters aim to respond in 20 minutes or less, and that’s happening far more often thanks to the Fire Authority’s reforms, Porter said.
Another objective: to ensure coverage of areas throughout the backcountry 24 hours a day, seven days a week with around-the-clock staffing at each of the system’s fire stations.
Jacob’s statement to 10 News implied that the Fire Authority is meeting that goal. But Porter said the agency isn’t consistently achieving it.
He said the system’s reliance on volunteers to fully staff many stations affiliated with the Fire Authority translates into frequently changing staffing needs and work schedules at facilities across the backcountry.
That means individual stations sometimes go dark as often as a handful of times per week.
“It happens regularly,” Porter said.
Herman Reddick, program manager for the Fire Authority, said volunteer staffing tends to be most affected in spring and early summer, when Cal Fire hires seasonal workers. The additional training San Diego County volunteer firefighters have received as part of the Fire Authority program has also made them more competitive for city fire department jobs, which can create other temporary manpower shortages, he said.
Still, Porter and Reddick say the county’s fire coverage has improved drastically since the Fire Authority was created.
Before the organization consolidated first responders, volunteers often only gathered at a fire station after an emergency call came in, allowing a fire or medical situation to potentially worsen before their arrival.
“Before the Fire Authority existed, there wasn’t 24/7 coverage at all,” Porter said.
Today, Porter and other Fire Authority supervisors plan for temporary staffing stoppages at volunteer stations and make sure staffing is adequate at nearby fire facilities. At times, they may send professional firefighters to fill in gaps if there aren’t enough volunteers available at a particular station or volunteers to work alongside full-timers.
But Jacob told 10 News the county provides around-the-clock coverage at fire stations that once relied on volunteers.
That’s not entirely accurate. The county has a system in place to assure 24/7 coverage across its vast backcountry but it’s not as if every station is fully manned all the time. The Fire Authority regularly shifts staffing when it’s short on volunteers.
And about a third of the stations that are part of the Fire Authority still rely on volunteer firefighters so it’s not correct to say they all now rely on full-time crews.
For those reasons, the comment Jacob made to 10 News is false. The county’s rural stations aren’t always fully staffed and sometimes even go dark.
In a statement, Jacob acknowledged she could have better explained the situation.
“My comments were incomplete and may have left the wrong impression,” she wrote.
Jacob went on to explain that the Fire Authority does have a plan to cover backcountry areas around the clock, and relies on both volunteers and full-timers. She also acknowledged some volunteer stations experience “periodic staffing gaps.”
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