by Kevin Crowe and Brooke Williams | inewsource

The progress San Diego was making toward improving fire response times has stalled since the city started idling fire engines to save money in February, a data analysis has found.

The national standard calls for engines to respond within 5 minutes 90 percent of the time.

The analysis by inewsource, a nonprofit investigative reporting center based at San Diego State University, found engines responding to fires met that goal 56 percent of the time in February through April under the city’s “brownout” policy of sidelining up to eight engines on a rotating basis.

That’s down from 58 percent during the same months of 2009, flat statistically. But 2009 had shown progress over previous years, growing from a low of 38 percent in 2006 for the same period.

The institute’s analysis of fire response times since 2004 showed a community demanding more of the Fire-Rescue Department, which has said for years it doesn’t have the resources to meet the national guidelines. The institute analyzed response times for more than 668,000 emergencies in San Diego.

Among inewsource‘s findings for 2004 through 2009:

  • Annual calls for firefighter response increased about 17 percent to more than 94,700.
  • The department’s job is increasingly less about fire and more about medical emergencies. They make up more than 80 percent of calls and increased 20 percent.
  • Calls to actual fires, including residential, commercial and vehicle, decreased 22 percent, from about 4,700 to about 3,600. Average response times improved by more than 20 seconds in 2009 before slightly lengthening after the brownouts started.

Fire Chief Javier Mainar says his immediate concern is for an end to the brownout policy, instituted to save $11.5 million when the city was facing a budget deficit of $179 million at the end of last year.

Given the situation, the chief is also seeking research that might relieve the city of the pressure of the five-minute goal. Rather than using the national standard, some cities have done their own research to use a more forgiving benchmark.

Mainar said such a study could consider travel difficulties, community design and building codes. With a longer response-time standard, he said, a single fire station could cover more ground, which would require less money. But that would have its downside.

“If you look at it from a financial standpoint, it’s a good thing,” he said. “Looking at it from an emergency response and getting there more quickly stand point, it is not a good thing.”

In the end, it’s a policy decision, he said, explaining, “The standard you end up with is the standard the community says they can afford to provide.”

The department noted that voters rejected ballot initiatives in 2004 and 2008 that would have increased funding for fire protection.

Mayor Jerry Sanders declined to answer a series of questions for this story, including whether he has a plan to end the brownouts. Instead, he issued a statement through spokesman Darren Pudgil.

“It’s certainly no secret that the recession has impacted every big city in America. Here in San Diego, however, we’ve done a much better job than most in dealing with it, especially in minimizing its impact on core city services,” the statement read.

The city has struggled with poor response times for years. San Diego fire officials blame a lack of resources and new stations. Former Chief Jeff Bowman – who also served in Anaheim and Oceanside – resigned from San Diego’s department in 2006, saying it was the most understaffed fire agency he’d ever seen.

Since 2004, the city has had at least 23 fatal fires and 201 that caused injuries, according to news accounts and fire department data inewsource reviewed. About 11,490 fires caused an estimated $274 million in property damage and content loss, according to department data. A little more than 21 percent of the damage occurred in 2007, the year of the city’s last major wildfire.

On average, it took engines or trucks four minutes and 59 seconds to get to the 224 fires since 2004 that were fatal or caused injuries. But averages can be misleading. In 45 percent of those fires, it took firefighters more than 5 minutes to arrive. In 10 percent of the fires, they took more than 7 minutes. In these cases, the response times ranged from 34 seconds to 14 minutes and 27 seconds.

Long response times are not necessarily responsible for deaths. inewsource calculations show firefighters responded to 13 of the 23 fatal fires within five minutes.

“The five minute average is great if you’re that person that gets help within five minutes,” said Bowman, who is active in fire safety education with the San Diego Regional Fire Safety Forum.

The National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit in Massachusetts, set the standard that says emergency response times should be five minutes or less 90 percent of the time. But the standards are not law, and the association is not an enforcement agency. The association does not keep data on compliance with the standard.

The standard is based on studies showing a fire can spread from the room of origin between eight and 10 minutes after it starts.

The workload for firefighters in San Diego has intensified since 2004.

That year, the department sent trucks or engines, which carry water, to more than 81,200 calls in San Diego. About 80 percent were medical calls. Last year, firefighters were dispatched to more than 94,700 calls, with about 83 percent medical.

The increase in workload has come with some monetary relief.

The fire budget increased nearly 25 percent from 2005 to total $199.9 million this fiscal year, but was cut to $191.8 midyear. Budgeted firefighter positions increased between 2005 and 2009 – from 888 to 938- but decreased by 25 positions since then.

The department has also acquired new helicopters, better radios and electronic mapping resources inside vehicles to help firefighters respond more quickly to emergencies.

But the size and population of a fire jurisdiction also are integral to the fire response equation.

For example, University City’s only station serves nearly 14 square miles of dense population. That’s almost five square miles more than national standards suggest to minimize loss of life and property.

One morning in June 2008, Marta Fram, 81, was getting dressed when an electrical cord ignited a blaze in her University City condominium.

Neighbor Maureen Gardiner saw flames about 8:35 a.m. and called 911. The Department dispatched an engine that was about 2.5 miles away at a station on East Gate Mall Road near Genesee Avenue.

Gardiner found Fram inside her condo wrapped in a towel.

“I tried to get her out, but she pulled away and went upstairs to get a robe,” she said. “There was a big crash of glass and flames kind of exploded.”

When Fram returned, her hair was singed, her teeth covered in soot, and her face and neck burned. It took firefighters six minutes and 30 seconds to get to the condo. They were out of the station in less than a minute; travel took the rest.

Fram died at the hospital about three weeks later, said her daughter Christine Fram, 56.

“You never know. One minute, it makes a big difference and she might be alive,” she said.

Chief Mainar said University City needs two or three more stations.

“One fire station built in the 1970s there is serving a huge area with many high-rises in it,” he said.

Studies and reports have identified the need for 11 to 22 new stations to fill in service gaps across the city.

The chief attributed the lack of stations in large part to fire officials previously not having a seat at the table with developers and city officials to demand new ones in growing communities.

But in recent years, developers have paid for the construction of two fire stations, and the Centre City Development Corp. is funding the construction of another one downtown that is expected to be in service in 2013.

Twelve stations in the city exceed the nine-square-mile standard used by the national accreditation organization, the Center for Public Safety Excellence Inc. That’s one reason the department is not accredited. The biggest district is the Rancho Bernardo station at 26 square miles; right behind is the Scripps Ranch station, which covers 23.

“I think they need another fire station here,” said Kim Shafer, 49, a resident of Rancho Bernardo. “We’re like sitting ducks here with Lake Hodges.”

The 2007 Witch Creek fire destroyed Shafer’s home, but she doesn’t fault the fire department. She said she thought firefighters did what they could.

Shafer said she understands the city is in tight financial straits and that officials have to pick and choose where to cut spending. When asked if she would support new taxes to increase funding to the fire department, she said she wasn’t sure.

“If they were going to raise taxes,” Shafer said, “I would have to think about that.”

This story was published in The San Diego Union-Tribune. KGTV and KPBS also aired segments on San Diego fire response times.

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