San Diego's public safety net is being stretched thin again.
This time, it's because of brownouts involving flight time for San Diego Police Department helicopters.
On July 1, the city's browned-out fire engines -- eight of 47 on a daily basis -- went back into service.
But scheduled flight time for the police department's Airborne Law Enforcement Unit, known as ABLE, was cut by 40 percent.
In the wake of the department's Air Support Unit losing about $1.5 million a year in federal grants and state revenues that bankrolled fuel and maintenance, ABLE's four Eurocopters are regularly flying only six hours a day -- instead of 10.
The cutback has given rise to fears that without ABLE's airspeed and "eyes in the skies," lives and crime-fighting capabilities may fall through the budgetary cracks.
"There are things that a helicopter can do that ground units cannot do," said Asst. Police Chief Bob Kanaski. "So when it's not in the air, it's a concern. It's a concern for me, it's a concern for the department, but a concern for the public as well."
When all choppers are grounded, it'll take crews seven minutes -- maybe more -- to gear up, perform preflight safety-checks, and get airborne for an emergency.
Says retired ABLE pilot Gary Roesink: "Police officers could be slightly paranoid that they don't have a tool, they don't have an asset there, working for them. Their safety's compromised by that. And the public's safety is compromised by that."
Kanaski recalls recent incidents in which, he says, "We had a couple officers that were doing foot pursuits that were saved from some serious trouble with gunfire, because ABLE was in the appropriate spots to stop them from making those turns."
Last year, ABLE chopper crews were credited with 663 arrests and assists on 2,315 others while logging 3,523 flight hours responding to 8,500 dispatch calls.
The unit was involved in 51 vehicle pursuits, found 21 missing people, and located 34 stolen vehicles.
"Emergency services are paramount; you can't cut back emergency services," Roesink said. "I might be slightly biased, having been a part of that community. But to me, that is the last place you cut back."
Unless city officials shift current budget priorities, the department will have to find more outside funding sources, and hope for savings from other divisions that can be allocated to ABLE in a mid-year budget adjustment.