After years of slow response times and resource shortages, San Diego's Fire-Rescue Department is on the verge of seeing a day not too far away when those trends turn around.
"The Fire Department's really not been at the table to discuss the needs they have as the city's developed outwards,” says the department’s chief, Javier Mainar. “ So the challenge is really in all of our communities.”
In a Friday recording session for Sunday’s edition of NBC 7’s “Politically Speaking” public affairs program, Mainar and City Council Infrastructure Committee chair Mark Kersey spoke of financing three new fire stations and designs for two more out of proceeds from a $120 million lease-revenue bond issue headed for Wall Street early next year.
The first is targeted for a Mission Valley site across Friars Road from Qualcomm Stadium, where a corner of the parking lot encompasses a station whose fire fighters and equipment have been housed in temporary, portable facilities since 2006.
The other two are planned for sites along Broadway and Pacific Highway, on the east and west sides of downtown.
The two projects due for design funds will be in neighborhoods south of Interstate 8.
Once all are on-line, those facilities could be of substantial help in cutting delays in emergency responses.
But, as Mainar said in an interview Friday, “the farthest-apart stations (in the city) are actually north of Interstate 8, as those large developments went in. We might build a centrally located station -- we didn't build enough stations around them to develop good response times."
Now city officials are starting to wake up to a consulting report that says San Diego, with 47 fire stations, now has some 20 emergency coverage gaps that need to be filled with new stations, looking to the meet the nationally accredited response-time standard of 7 and a half minutes from dispatch to arrival, 90 percent of the time.
Here, it's happening less than 70 percent of the time.
But the "capital improvements” money flowing from the bond issue won't cover manpower to staff the new stations and engines – and may not have a major impact on certain working conditions.
City general funds will be need for operating costs -- and for years, officials have under-funded a firefighter force that's spread thin, and overworked.
"They're really tired of the city dragging their feet on so many things -- building these stations, getting the amount of employees that we need,” says Frank De Clercq, president of the rank-and-file San Diego Firefighters Local 145 union. “You know, for God's sake, we're about 840 people. We've got fewer firefighters than the city of San Francisco. It's got 18-hundred covering 55 square miles."
De Clercq, in a Friday interview, cited issues such as 401(k) retirement plans for new Fire-Rescue hires, a lapse in formalizing death and disability benefits, mandatory overtime and other economic and morale issues.
"We're making people work many more shifts and we're having a problem hiring people,” De Clercq added. “A lot of them -- for the first time -- are turning down employment here. The chief just did a report that they're choosing to go elsewhere, necause we've gotten to the point where we can hardly field a team.
“There's a lot of applicants; you'll always get someone. But you're not going to get the cream of the crop."