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Sometimes solutions to problems are as easy as they seem.
People living in Encanto and other neighborhoods south and east of downtown had often waited a long time for firefighters and paramedics to arrive when they called 911. After years of broken promises and reluctance from some City Council members, the city put two more firefighters in the neighborhood a few months ago.
So is cutting response times in underserved neighborhoods as easy as putting more firefighters in those neighborhoods? Yes, it turns out.
“You’re looking at response times going from beyond 7 to 9 minutes to guys getting there a minute and a half to 3 minutes after getting the call,” Deputy Fire-Rescue Chief Chris Webber told U-T San Diego recently.
The two firefighters now in Encanto operate out of a pickup, not the traditional four-person fire engines or trucks used for emergency responses across the rest of the city. The Fire-Rescue Department is testing these two-person crews this year in a pilot program to see whether they will lead to sustained cuts in response times.
And even more good news for at-risk neighborhoods could be coming soon. In January, the department is on track to open a temporary fire station in the Skyline neighborhood, a community near Encanto that also has a high risk for a delayed emergency response.
The temporary station will go on city-owned land once an old gas station is cleared away. A full four-person fire engine crew will work out of a trailer on the property.
“We’ve been pushing pretty hard on this one because we didn’t want any delays,” said Ken Barnes, an assistant chief.
Barnes said he expects speedier response times in Skyline once the engine there is up and running.
The two-person crew in Encanto costs $600,000 and the temporary Skyline station will cost about $1 million this year – though the price tag for Skyline will rise once it’s running for a whole year. Still, both are cheaper and quicker solutions for underserved neighborhoods than building new, permanent fire stations. They cost roughly $12 million to build, including the first year of firefighter staffing.
The building of new stations continues to languish. City leaders had earmarked $3 million from a planned infrastructure loan to begin designing a new station on Home Avenue in City Heights and a permanent facility in Skyline. But that loan is tied up in court. The neighborhood surrounding Home Avenue remains the greatest risk for a delayed response in the entire city, but no solution is planned there for the near future.