After months of operating at dangerously low levels because of mechanical issues, San Diego's fleet of reserve fire engines is starting to reach more acceptable numbers.
When NBC 7 first reported on the situation last September, only seven of 32 reserve engines were available for duty.
That number dropped to just four to five a day in early January, when red-flag warnings were common.
On Tuesday, 16 reserve rigs were in service.
"I feel that we've been hurt.,” Fire-Rescue Chief Javier Mainar said in an interview. “And the results we see today -- with 16 engines available -- indicates that the city's being responsive."
Reserve rigs are used when front-line engines at the city's 47 stations need repairs or maintenance – and for “surge” deployments to catastrophic fires.
But maintenance and repair technicians have been in short supply since city Fleet Services employees won a managed competition through deep cost-cutting.
Workforce reductions were followed by a wave of departures, and the resulting vacancies have been hard to fill.
“The mechanics are specialized, the people that we had were very good at what they did,” says Frank De Clercq, president of Fire Fighters Local 145. “ Many of them retired when they could; they wanted to get out. The pay and concessions have gone down to the point where we don't have enough of those mechanics."
Other mechanics pursued better-paying jobs in the private sector.
Over the past month, through three daily overtime shifts and outsourcing of work to five outside automotive shops, the trucks are now being fixed.
The private-sector contracts are costing about $50,000 apiece, according to City Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who chairs the Council’s Public Safety & Livable Neighborhoods Committee.
"I'm as frustrated as anybody,” Emerald told NBC 7. “Because we've got to have -- especially -- our emergency vehicles ready to go when the bell rings."
Depending on the work needed, some reserve rigs are being sent to other city vehicle maintenance shops, to further reduce the backlog at the Fire Rescue Department's own facility in Kearny Mesa.
Said Mainar: "We're very well positioned right now for the wildfire season we have. It's interesting; we've not seen a relaxation of the Santa Ana winds -- if anything, they've increased in our winter months here. It's really quite unusual. So we're very cognizant of the impact our reserve fleet has on our capabilities to be ready for those fires."
Emerald acknowledges that it’ll still take some time to restore more a greater number of reserve rigs to service.
"I'm going to be patient,” she said, “but if it doesn't get fixed here pretty quickly, personally I'm thinking we ought to re-think the management competition for Fleet Services – it wasn’t intended to create this kind of chaos … so we’re on a week-to-week basis.”
An outside consulting firm has been hired for a "comprehensive review" of the city's managed competition efforts.
The report is expected next month.