Disabled man dies in fire in emergency-service ‘brownout’ area

SAN DIEGO (CNS) – A 43-year-old quadriplegic was found dead in his bed Wednesday after firefighters doused a blaze in an apartment building in a Pacific Beach neighborhood affected by city budget-cutting reductions in emergency- services availability.

The blaze in the 2000 block of Diamond Street was reported shortly before 2 p.m. It took crews just under 10 minutes to extinguish the flames, which were confined to one ground-floor rental unit and caused an estimated $60,000 worth of damage, according to San Diego Fire-Rescue Department spokesman Maurice Luque.

Investigators determined that the blaze, which caused no other injuries, erupted when a cigarette the disabled man was smoking ignited the medicinal oxygen he used, Luque said.

The resident's name was withheld pending notification of his family.

Under a 14-month-old cost-cutting plan, the victim's neighborhood was subject to an emergency-response “brownout.” Thus, the nearest fire station did not have a fire engine at its disposal — a situation that resulted in a 90- second lag in firefighting response while a water tank- and hose-equipped vehicle was dispatched from La Jolla, Luque said.

The spokesman told reporters he could not say whether the life of the victim, described as a chain smoker, potentially could have been saved if not for that delay.

“All I can do is stick to the facts,” he said. “And the facts are that our first apparatus in was a truck, (and) it did not have water. The first water arrived … a minute and a half later. During that period of time, a minute and a half — that's a lot of time for a fire to free-burn as it did in this case.”

Due to the explosive origin of the blaze, however, even the quickest possible response might have made no difference, the spokesman said.

A caretaker employed by the man had left earlier in the day, leaving him alone in the apartment, according to Luque.

Under the brownout program, which went into effect in February 2010, engine companies at 13 of the city's 47 fire stations are deactivated for a month at a time on a rotating basis, leaving up to eight of them unavailable each day. The firefighters who otherwise would staff those vehicles fill in for other crew members who are absent from duty.

The program was aimed at saving the city about $11.5 million in overtime expenditures and was part of a proposal that Mayor Jerry Sanders floated in 2009 in a bid to close a $179 million budget shortfall. The City Council approved the cuts in December of that year.

The mayor's latest budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year would phase out the brownout policy, returning four fire engines on July 1 and the rest at the beginning of next year. Restoring the full fleet of water-pumping vehicles also has been a top stated priority of the City Council.

At least two other fatal emergencies have prompted concerns and protests over the cost-saving city service reductions.

Last July, a toddler choked to death on a gumball in a Mira Mesa neighborhood affected by the cutbacks, prompting Fire Chief Javier Mainar to concede that the prevailing brownout “had a negative impact on our ability to provide service.”

Though the home where the 2-year-old boy was stricken is a block from a fire station, an engine had to be sent from the South Bay, and it arrived 9 1/2 minutes after the family's 911 call. The child was pronounced dead at a hospital about an hour later.

In March of last year, a 78-year-old man died when a fire tore through his apartment on Broadway in Golden Hill.

Crews from a fire station a quarter-mile to the east arrived less than 30 seconds after receiving an emergency call reporting the blaze, but they were aboard a truck with no water-hose capability. A fire engine from a Barrio Logan station arrived about four minutes later.

While dousing the flames, crews found the man's body near a bathroom inside the smoke-filled residence.

As with today's beach-area fatal blaze, Luque said it was uncertain if the victim of the Golden Hill fire might have been saved by a quicker emergency response.

“It's one of those things that you can debate,” he said at the time.

That fatality led Councilwoman Marti Emerald's office to issue a harsh critique of the crew-reduction policy.

“From the beginning, council member Emerald has been seriously concerned about the potential impact on public safety posed by the engine- closure program,” the statement read.

The brownouts involve all the “double house” stations in the city — those that normally have trucks and engines at their disposal. “Single houses,” which only have engines, are not subject to the rotating reductions.

Even before the cutbacks went into effect, nearly two dozen firehouses in San Diego already fell short of a nationally accepted standard for response times, according to Emerald.

The following city firehouses are subject to the rotating staff reductions:

— Station 1, downtown, 1222 First Ave.;
— Station 4, downtown, 404 Eighth Ave.;
— Station 10, College area, 4605 62nd St.;
— Station 11, Golden Hill, 945 25th St.;
— Station 12, Lincoln Park, 4964 Imperial Ave.;
— Station 14, North Park, 4011 32nd St.;
— Station 20, Midway, 3305 Kemper St.;
— Station 21, Pacific Beach, 750 Grand Ave.;
— Station 28, Kearny Mesa, 3880 Kearny Villa Road;
— Station 29, San Ysidro, 198 W. San Ysidro Blvd.;
— Station 35, University City, 4285 Eastgate Mall;
— Station 40, Rancho Penasquitos, 13393 Salmon River Road; and
— Station 44, Mira Mesa, 10011 Black Mountain Road.

Categories: KUSI