Much-maligned ‘brownout’ program ends

SAN DIEGO (CNS) – Friday marked the end of the city's widely denounced emergency-services “brownout” program, which idled up to eight fire engines a day over the past 17 months as a means of propping up San Diego's unsteady municipal finances.

The cost-cutting plan affected 13 of the city's 47 fire stations for a month at a time on a rotating basis, leaving some of them without enough personnel to provide first-responder water-pumping capabilities. Last month, the City Council scrapped the much-maligned program on a 7-1 vote, while approving a 2011-12 budget.

“This is a good day for San Diego,” Councilwoman Marti Emerald said at a College Area firehouse.

The fire-service reduction concept, aimed at saving the city about $11.5 million in overtime expenditures, was part of a municipal cutback package Mayor Jerry Sanders floated in 2009 in a bid to close a $179 million budget shortfall. The council reluctantly approved the proposals in December of that year, and the brownouts went into effect two months later.

From the start, San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar and other city officials did not hide their belief that the plan compromised public safety.

Mainar described the brownouts as a particularly acute potential problem for neighborhoods in Kearny Mesa, Mira Mesa, Rancho Penasquitos and University City. He said the cuts also led to a reduction in fire inspections and less time for firefighter training.

While the program was in effect, at least two city emergencies resulted in fatalities possibly linked to response-time delays.

Last summer, a toddler choked to death on a gumball in a Mira Mesa neighborhood affected by the cutbacks, prompting the fire chief to say that the prevailing brownout “had a negative impact on our ability to provide service.”

Though the 2-year-old boy was in a home a block from a fire station when he was stricken on the evening of July 20, 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.

Four months earlier, a 78-year-old man died when a fire tore through his apartment in a browned-out Golden Hill-area neighborhood.

Crews from a fire station a quarter-mile to the east arrived less than 30 seconds after receiving an emergency call reporting the blaze on the morning of March 19, 2010, but they were aboard a truck with no water-dispensing capability. A fire engine from a Barrio Logan station arrived about four minutes later.

While dousing the flames, crews found the resident's body near a bathroom inside the smoke-filled residence in the 2200 block of Broadway.

Fire department spokesman Maurice Luque told reporters it was uncertain if the elderly man might have been saved by a quicker response.

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

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

“We've seen the response times steadily climb and public safety erode,” Emerald said.

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

Taking as many as eight engines out of service per day allowed the firefighters who would normally operate them to fill in for other crew members absent from duty for various reasons, thus reducing overtime expenses.

The following city firehouses were 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.

During a visit to the Rancho Penasquitos station, Councilwoman Sherri Lightner said you can't put a price on public safety.

“Our fire-rescue department provides some of the city's most important services,” Lightner said. “I will sleep a little easier knowing that Fire Station 40 and all of our fire stations around San Diego are once again whole.”

Categories: KUSI