Multiple fires threaten San Diego area in early start to season

Held In Reserve, Too Many Not Ready: Repair Issues Vex SD Backup Fire Rigs

Mechanical issues plague San Diego Fire-Rescue's reserve engines

By Gene Cubbison
|  Tuesday, May 20, 2014  |  Updated 6:38 AM PDT
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During the Bernardo Fire, reserve engines from the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department played a role in keeping homes from burning. But half that fleet was idled by mechanical problems. As NBC 7’s Gene Cubbison reports, while the situation is getting better, it’s not fixed.

During the Bernardo Fire, reserve engines from the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department played a role in keeping homes from burning. But half that fleet was idled by mechanical problems. As NBC 7’s Gene Cubbison reports, while the situation is getting better, it’s not fixed.

San Diego's Fire-Rescue reserve engine fleet saw some front-line action in the first of last week's firestorms

But repair and maintenance issues are still idling half of those rigs, as well as some primary engines.

There are nagging financial and political issues behind all this.

In early January, only a handful of Fire-Rescue's 28 "fully equipped" reserve engines were available.

By last Tuesday, when the Bernardo Fire erupted, ten were ready for duty and sent to points of attack.

Four more were added the next day, thanks to a ramped-response to maintenance and repair needs by the overworked, specialized mechanics of the city’s understaffed Fleet Services division.

"They really abandoned all other work, focused their energy on the reserve fleet and started to push out more and more reserves out,” Fire-Rescue Chief Javier Mainar said in an interview Monday. “We did not have to cancel any orders. We did not have to hold back on our commitments to the Bernardo Fire. And when we began to de-escalate the Bernardo Fire, we were able to help out our neighbors to the north."

Fortunately, with heavy air support and ramped-up response from dozens of firefighters working overtime, there was no need for more of the reserve fleet -- which backs up front-line engines at the city's 47 fire stations.

But if and when there’s a "next time" – with far more challenges – having half the reserve fleet idled would not be ideal.

"While we did well (in the Bernardo Fire response) and I'm extremely proud of that,” Mainar told NBC 7, “ it could be a much worse scenario – like (the ones) faced by the folks to the north in San Marcos, Carlsbad and those areas."

On Monday afternoon, dozens of rigs from both fleets were in Fleet Services’ repair shop at Fire Station 28 in Kearny Mesa, west of Montgomery Field.

That backlog, according to rank-and-file firefighters, stems from a shortage of skilled mechanics due to budget trimming, attrition and other issues involving the "managed competition" setup in Fleet Services.

"What they've done here is kind of broken up the system,” said Frank De Clercq, president of San Diego City Firefighters Local 145. "The mechanics do a great job. I just don't know if there's going to be enough of those mechanics that have the expertise to work on these and get a quick enough turnaround."

In an interview Monday, De Clercq predicted that the current managed competition setup will have to be re-engineered: "They're going to see that it's going to be a failure -- and they'll figure it out. Maybe you sometimes have the system have to break before you can go back and fix it."

Mainar said he’s been led to believe that 20 reserve rigs will soon routinely be available.

"The Huron Group that was brought in to look at things -- the consultants -- took a look at what the fleet would be doing under the managed competition program,” Mainar said. “They are confident that the fleet would be able to step up to the plate and do what's required for Fire-Rescue."

But the chair of the City Council's Public Safety & Livable Communities Committee Marti Emerald has her doubts

"I'm not confident. I'm not going to hold my breath,” said Councilwoman Emerald, a second-termer who represents the 9th District. “We'll wait and see what happens, and we'll keep bringing them before the committee until we're confident they're doing the job. Or we have to make some changes … such as rethinking this whole management of our fleet."

Five private automotive firms have "outsource" contracts with the city to help cover Fire-Rescue's maintenance and repair needs.

Those agreements total $250,000.

Fleet Services also has authorization for emergency overtime work.

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