Fire Chief interview: FIRE CHIEF JAVIER MAINAR San Diego Fire-Rescue Department

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...


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Firehouse: The department is 200 firefighters below levels from a few years ago. Will new firefighters be hired?

Mainar: Our firefighter staffing levels are down about 100 from previous years due to a management decision to backfill some vacancies with overtime rather than to hire firefighters to replace those who have retired or moved to other agencies. This was done as a cost-savings measure since it is less costly to pay overtime than to hire a fully benefitted employee. While we have not conducted a fire recruit academy in two years, we will be running one in July of this year. A one-week application period with little advertising yielded approximately 4,800 applicants for the 30-60 anticipated openings over the next two years.

 

Firehouse: A ballot initiative in June would replace the defined benefit pension plan with a 401(k)-type program. How would that affect the department?

Mainar: A Comprehensive Pension Reform (CPR) initiative has been placed on the ballot and is supported by our mayor and some members of our City Council. If approved by the voters, this would end the defined benefit retirement plan for all new city employees except police officers and replace it with a 401(a) plan, which is similar to the better-known 401(k). While the impact on hiring of firefighters is not yet known, I predict we will always see a large number of applicants for our openings, but unless other large agencies in California follow suit with pension reform, we will see our new firefighters move to agencies with better retirement plans once they have bolstered their resume with service in San Diego. If this occurs, our training costs would increase and we would be challenged to maintain the high level of service we currently provide with more experienced personnel.

 

Firehouse: In the past, the department had to brown out numerous units each day. How did the department find the funding to keep all units open?

Mainar: For a period of 17 months, we browned out up to eight of our 47 fire engines each day to save $11.5 million in overtime expense. Because this negatively impacted response times and caused concern within the communities that felt the greatest impacts, our mayor and City Council made restoration of the brown outs a priority for new revenues in the city’s budget. Thankfully, this practice ended on July 1, 2011, when our City Council allocated an additional $11.5 million in our budget to fully restore these units.

 

Firehouse: The department has operated its training at the Naval Training Center (NTC), which the Navy let it use. This center may be used for other city business. Are there any plans to relocate the training academy or to have satellite locations?

Mainar: If our Regional Public Safety Training Institute at NTC is relocated to accommodate a higher need of the city, we will need to identify replacement facilities for both fire and police training activities. Should this occur, I see it as an opportunity for us to partner with other area fire agencies to develop three or four joint-use training facilities throughout our region. This would reduce the amount of time our units are out of service traveling to and from a centrally located training facility like NTC. This would not only make training delivery more efficient and less impactful to response coverage, but should also yield greater opportunities for cross-agency training and savings through elimination of duplicate training facilities.

 

Firehouse: There has been a tremendous amount of building downtown. Can the department keep up with all the high-rises being built?

Mainar: There are now 205 high-rises in our city. Many are in our downtown area where no new fire stations have been built since 1971. Two new fire stations are planned to address the tremendous growth we’ve seen in our core and were slated to be funded by redevelopment activity. Unfortunately, the building of these new stations is now threatened by the governor’s elimination of redevelopment agencies and their funding. It remains to be seen what the impact of this change would be and how the stations would be funded if not via redevelopment dollars.