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Supervisors seek implementation plan for emergency response study

Not only did the San Diego County Board of Supervisors accept the regional deployment study to assess the delivery of fire and emergency medical services in San Diego County, but the supervisors’ 5-0 vote May 19 also directed the county’s Chief Administrative Officer to develop an implementation plan based on the study’s recommendations and return to the Board of Supervisors within 120 days with such a plan.

“It really does provide us that blueprint for the future on how we can be the best we can be,” County Supervisor Dianne Jacob said of the study.

The study, which was conducted by Citygate Associates, LLC, included 33 areas of recommendation. While the study did not recommend a countywide tax increase and suggested that service improvements be funded on a subregional basis, the recommendations included functional consolidation for dispatch, training, incident command, and other activities.

Last year the Board of Supervisors authorized a regional deployment study, and a competitive bid process selected Citygate Associates, LLC, to perform the study. The scope of work included a detailed response coverage analysis of fire station and crew deployment throughout the region, infrastructure triggers for additional fire station and staffing resources, and a high-level analysis of logistical support services such as

training and dispatch.

“The goal was simple, but the work was not simple,” said county Chief Administrative Officer Walt Ekard.

A geographic mapping response time program modeled fire station coverage areas and a fire service statistics software program modeled prior incident response times from more than 600,000 incidents and 1,400,000 apparatus movements to understand actual response times, locations, and types of emergencies.

The incorporated and unincorporated county is served by 914 career firefighters on duty per day; that staffing does not include more than 700 volunteer firefighters nor does it include military base fire crews. San Diego County’s 264 fire stations have 460 engines, ladders and specialty units.

The firefighters and paramedics responded to 262,614 incidents during Fiscal Year 2008-09, approximately 65 percent of which were for emergency medical service. The region’s spending on fire services for Fiscal Year 2009-09 was approximately $517 million, not including U.S. Forest Service or California Department of Forest and Fire Protection spending for Federal and state responsibility areas and not including law enforcement or medical contract helicopter costs.

Actions taken after various wildfires over the past decade limited the 2009 wildfire acreage to 422 burned acres from 148 fire starts with 96.6 percent of those fires contained to ten acres or less.

“Fire deployment is about the speed and the weight of the attack,” said Stuart Gray of Citygate, who was a firefighter before he became a consultant.

The study used an optimal driving response time of five minutes for urban and suburban areas and of 12 minutes for rural and wilderness areas while dividing the county into southwest, northwest, northeast and southeast quadrants. It was determined that additional fire stations in the rural eastern portions would not provide a significant increase in areas which could be covered within the 12-minute drive.

“The eastern county does not need additional stations absent growth,” Gray said. “Staffing is the issue.”

The recommendations advised against structural growth in the rural areas.

“More development in the rural, very hard to serve areas will be problematic,” Gray said. “You will never have the tax base.”

The issue of cul-de-sacs in urban and suburban areas often kept neighborhoods from meeting the five-minute response standard. A determination of where additional stations would bring enough additional residences within that standard determined the need for 11 new stations in the City of San Diego, two in Oceanside, and one in Santee.

“We see a struggle in a near-term countywide tax increase,” Gray said. “Each area has very different needs, and those revenues will probably have to be addressed on a subregional basis.”

While the recommendations covering incorporated cities called for additional stations, the recommendations for the county included bringing the volunteer fire departments into the San Diego County Regional Fire Authority and not providing additional funding for volunteer fire departments who do not join the regional agency (the 2008 creation of the authority included areas served by volunteer fire departments, which kept their autonomy and are expected to work together with the paid firefighters covering those areas).

The recommendations also included multi-agency coordination groups whose decisions would be binding on local agencies through a Memorandum of Understanding or a Joint Powers Authority.

“This is something which really augments where the county Board of Supervisors has been going for the past several years,” said San Miguel Consolidated Fire Protection District fire chief Augie Ghio, who is the president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association.

Ghio noted that public outreach was a major component of fire safety.

“We also need to include public education and readiness,” he said. “We can have a better prepared community, especially in these hard-to-serve areas.”

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