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Firehouse: Why is it that the citizens of San Diego never seem to have backed legislation, bond issues or votes for more funding for fire protection in either the city or county?
Mainar: San Diegans have historically been fiscally conservative in their approach to funding public services. The deep recession we have experienced over the past decade along with increased criticism of public employee compensation packages and distrust of public officials has made the electorate more reluctant than ever to increase their tax rates to provide greater levels of service. While this is the case, in the aftermath of the 2007 wildfire, a ballot measure seeking a parcel assessment to provide additional firefighting resources was placed on the ballot. Although the measure passed in the city, it failed to win approval in the county. As a result, the measure was defeated. A more recent ballot measure to increase funding just in the City of San Diego was soundly rejected by the voters.
Firehouse: Even after two 100-year fires four years apart, are citizens still apathetic about the level of fire protection provided?
Mainar: I don’t feel most people are apathetic about the potential for catastrophic loss from wildfires, but since only a relatively small percentage live adjacent to open wildland areas or on canyon rims, many feel the likelihood they will be directly impacted by a wildfire is simply not great enough to justify increasing their taxes to provide greater firefighting capability. This is particularly true since many in this down economy are struggling to fund other fundamental needs. I think the same holds true for the many in our communities who have never accessed our emergency services and feel they are unlikely to do so in the future. Of course, our biggest supporters are the relatively small number of citizens who directly consume the services we provide.
Firehouse: There are 47 fire stations protecting a city of 331 square miles with about one-quarter of the city in brush areas. Recent accreditation studies call for 19 new fire stations. In today’s economy, is that feasible?
Mainar: We recently engaged Citygate Associates to conduct a Standards of Response Coverage Deployment Study. Their analysis found that due to San Diego’s unique topography of winding roads divided by canyons, it was not fiscally prudent to build the large number of fire stations it would take to be fully compliant with NFPA 1710. This resulted in adoption of a modified NFPA 1710 first-due engine response time goal of 7:30 from time of call receipt to arrival. Given this more appropriate response time goal, Citygate determined that the city’s current deployment of 47 fire stations left 19 gaps in coverage. Ten of these gaps are large enough to justify the building of a fire station and nine could be covered by an alternate response concept we have named Fast Response Squads (two-person mini-pumpers). Addressing all of the capital needs identified in the Citygate Report would require approximately $98 million and the annual operating costs would be approximately $41 million. The recommendations and fiscal priorities have since been translated to a five-year implementation plan that has been adopted by our City Council. While it is a significant step to have a plan in place, identifying the needed funding will be the key to implementing the plan.
Firehouse: Do many fire stations require rehabilitation? Are funds available?
Mainar: Some of our fire stations are showing their age and are in need of refurbishment or replacement. We have design plans on the shelf or in development for several of our stations, but due to tight budgets little money has been available to start construction. On a positive note, our city recently entered the bond market to fund a backlog of deferred maintenance projects like fire station improvements and replacements. As a result, we hope to see activity in this area in the next one to two years.