San Diego's Fire-Rescue Department is especially on edge right now, as this week’s change of seasons brings the prospect of hot, windy, fire-prone Santa Ana conditions through the fall months.
That's because the city's reserve fleet of engines is at a dangerously low level.
It’s a situation just brought to light in the latest edition of San Diego CityBeat, and tied to unintended consequences stemming from the city's voter-approved "managed competition" process.
"We don't have enough mechanics to maintain these vehicles,” said Frank De Clercq, president of San Diego Firefighters Local 145, during a Thursday walking tour of Fire-Rescue’s fleet servicing facility in Kearny Mesa.
“Some of them -- in fact, newer ones that are here -- they've actually fallen out of warranty,” De Clercq noted, pointing out rows of parked rigs awaiting repairs and other automotive work. “In which case the city ends up having to pay the repair these."
Of the department’s 32 ready-reserve engines that backfill Fire-Rescue's 60 day-to-day front-liners, only seven were available for duty as of Thursday.
The rest haven't been worked on, due to short-staffing in the city's force of vehicle mechanics.
Five of 17 positions assigned to Fire-Rescue are vacant.
The same scenario is playing out among the city's other vehicle fleets, because employees vastly underbid private outfits in "managed competition" two years ago, with an approach now on track to reduce Fleet Maintenance Services staffing by 37 percent since then.
Overtime has been ordered in Fire-Rescue to bring down the backlog of 25 un-serviced reserve rigs, to prepare for potential catastrophes on the order of the county’s deadly 2003 and 2007 firestorms.
“If we have these fires,” De Clercq said, “fires in the East County have an effect on the county fire departments. They are basically a bare-bones volunteer group. They depend on us as well. If we don't have the vehicles, we can't even help them out, let alone ourselves."
As it turns out, the seven reserve engines now available are a cause for minor celebration, since the department has had to get by with fewer since the managed competition process began unfolding.
"When we see these levels get down to one-to-two rigs available, we start getting nervous about providing the resources we need to the citizens,” Asst. Fire-Rescue Chief Ken Barnes said in an interview Thursday, "It's happened in the last six to eight months. It's happened on a more frequent basis.”
For the folks at City Hall, there seems to be a lesson learned the hard way.
"My understanding from the fire chief, in terms of his comfort level, all 25 aren't necessarily needed to be ready today,” Interim Mayor Todd Gloria reassured news media outlets during a Thursday morning briefing. “There's a certain level, and we're working our way to that. And we're going to continue to be aggressive, because obviously public safety is our first priority."
Gloria said the situation calls for a careful re-evaluation of future "managed competitions" for other municipal functions and services.
"In terms of my orientation to managed competition, because it's a new process and one we're trying to explore and trying to perfect,” Gloria told the gathering of journalists, “ I still believe that what we should do are some of the smaller functions. So if we do end up making mistakes, those don't affect the direct service delivery to the public."
As a precaution, the city has set up an emergency contracting process, to bring in outside mechanics as needed.
The $4 million projected annual savings from managed competition figure to take a 'hit’ if private help is needed, on top of in-house overtime and other costs.