Fatal Fire Highlights Brownout Issue: Union President

By Nicole Ward
|  Friday, Mar 19, 2010  |  Updated 9:23 PM PDT
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San Diego City firefighters union president Frank De Clerq said the man's death highlights a critical issue.

San Diego City firefighters union president Frank De Clerq said the man's death highlights a critical issue.

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Fast-Moving Fire Kills One

San Diego Fire Rescue responded to an apartment blaze Friday in Golden Hill.

Raw Video: Fatal Golden Hill Fire

Photojournalist Mark Leimbach rushed to the scene of the fire on Friday.
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San Diego Fire Rescue responded to a fatal apartment blaze shortly after 8 a.m. on Friday in Golden Hill.  Neighbors said the victim is an older man; not much else is yet known about him. San Diego City firefighters union president Frank De Clerq said the man's death highlights a critical issue.

"The three closest stations were browned out," said De Clerq, referring to a policy the city has implemented -- in order to save money -- to reduce the number of crews working every day. Under the plan, a single crew does the work of multiple crews on a rotating basis.

With the 8th and J, 32nd and Lincoln, and 25th and Broadway stations browned-out at the time of the fire, the closest engine with water came from Barrio Logan. A ladder truck, which does not carry any water, arrived one minute after the call came in. The engine, which carries water, arrived three minutes and 30 seconds after the ladder truck arrived. Several minutes later, the water started flowing.

San Diego Fire Rescue spokesman Officer Maurice Luque said it would be speculative to blame the victim's death on the brownout policy. 

"He could have had a heart attack and died," said Luque, in which case a closer engine wouldn't have made a difference.

But De Clerq said the man's death is a  game-changer.

"I'm telling you as a 30-year firefighter, it does make a difference," De Clerq said. "These engine companies all need to get open and these brownouts need to stop."

De Clerq said that up to eight stations can be browned out in a day and that when it comes to protecting people's lives, the city shouldn't gamble.

Adding to problems fighting Friday morning's blaze: The ladder truck malfunctioned, so firefighters couldn't get onto the roof to ventilate the structure.  Luque said the truck was working the day before and that investigators are trying to determine why it didn't work.

The building incurred about $900,000 in damages, according to fire officials, who said they believed the fire was caused by either a space heater igniting a couch or faulty wiring to the heater. Forty-eight residents were displaced by the blaze.

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