By Miriam Raftery
July 22, 2010 (San Diego) – Two-year-old Bentley Do’s family lives just one block from a San Diego Fire-Rescue Department Station. But the station’s crew was filling in for another Mira Mesa station’s personnel as part of city-ordered “brown-outs” to save money.
As a result, when the toddler’s parents called 911 to report that the boy was choking on a gumball and had stopped breathing, an engine company from the South Bay responded—and took nine and a half minutes to arrive. By then, police officers were also at the scene performing CPR. But paramedics with the firefighting team arrived too late to save the child.
“Brownouts had a negative impact on our ability to provide service in this case,” San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainer said in a news briefing yesterday. Although his department’s goal is to respond within five minutes 90% of the time, that standard was not met on this call. Whether Do would have survived had paramedics arrive sooner will never be known—but the risk of deactivating engine companies at 13 of 47 stations citywide for a month at a time on a rotating basis clearly increases the risk to the public.
“Everybody is just devastated by this little boy dying,” Councilmember Marti Emerald, chair of the City's Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, told East County Magazine today. “We really want to protect everybody out there, and it’s getting tougher and tougher in this economy.”
Emerald has been outspoken in warning of the dangers posed by brownouts, but concedes that the city’s options are very limited. Tax revenues have decreased due to the economy. The state has raided about $100 million from city coffers. Plus the current council inherited under-funded pensions, she noted.
“We need new revenues,” she said when asked for a solution to prevent future deaths due to unavailability of emergency workers. “This case really begs the question of what kind of public safety network are we creating when we keep taking resources away?”
The night before Do’s death, the City Council’s Rules Committee voted to send a proposed sales tax increase to the full council. If approved by Council, the measure would go before voters. It calls for a temporary half-cent increase in the City’s 8 ¾ percent sales tax.
Emerald supports the temporary tax increase but is not sure if there will be enough votes on the Council to send it to the public. San Diego voters have repeatedly voted down other proposed revenue increases, including a parcel tax proposal that would have designated funds specifically for firefighting.
“This is a new Council. We are doing our very best to spend every dime wisely,” said Emerald, noting that the tax increase would include citizen oversight and auditing. “But we really need help from the citizens. If we can team up with the public, get the approval to move forward with a temporary sales tax increase, we’ll be able to put more firefighters and more police out there.”
The brownouts affect all two-engine stations. Most are in western portions of the County, though Station 10 in the College area on 62nd Street is also impacted, as are stations in Penasquitos, Mira Mesa and Kearny Mesa close to I-15. Even before brownouts took effect, almost two dozen firehouses in San Diego fell below national standards for response time, Emerald has previously indicated.
Some Chiefs in East County have also voiced concerns over budget impacts on public safety.
Lakeside Fire Chief Andy Parr says his department has been keeping a close eye on mutual response times and calls involving the City of San Diego, but thus far has not seen much impact in his area. Unlike San Diego, which has four firefighters per engine, however, Lakeside is making do with three-man engines in the current economy.
“We have now loaded our fire engines with new technology that tells us where the closest fire engines are, so we send the closest, no matter what it says on the door,” Parr said.
La Mesa, El Cajon and Lemon Grove have consolidated their fire departments into a single agency as a cost-cutting measure.
August Ghio, head of the County Fire Chiefs Association and Chief of San Miguel Fire District, has also expressed frustration at voters failing to approve funding proposals for fire and emergency response services. His district recently eliminated a fire truck company at one station. The federal recommended response time is four minutes (plus one minute of dispatch time and up to three minutes of turnout time for firefighters to don protective gear), San Miguel’s goal is to get a unit on the scene within eight minutes of an emergency call 90% of the time.
With 47 square miles to cover and eight engine companies, that can be challenging. San Miguel has taken some steps to improve response time, including adding a fuel tank at Crest, where firefighters had to be gone from their area for 40 minutes to refuel, Ghio said.
“When we reduce service levels , we are doing it because economic circumstances beyond our control dictate that we make really wicked decisions,” Chief Ghio acknowledged. While multiple emergencies could create gaps in service even with the best of staffing circumstances, Ghio readily acknoweldges that closing a truck company “caused a service gap. There’s no doubt about it,” he concluded, “but we do the best with what we’ve got.”
Editor's note: For information on what to do if someone is choking, see http://www.emedicinehealth.com/choking/page6_em.htm