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San Diego firefighters prepared for season despite lack of funds

As published in San Diego News Network

by Hoa Quach

Monday, September 21, 2009

Although talk has risen about San Diego’s lack of funding for fire protection, firefighters assure locals they’re ready this wildfire season.

As California grapples with its own fire budget woes, controversy had taken over the city’s fire department as San Diegans wonder whether enough money is available for their fire fighters too.

But interim fire chief Tracy Jarman said her firefighters are as ready as they’ll ever be.

“The last three years for the city of San Diego has been challenging financially,” she said. “But I’ve seen incredible improvements for us within the San Diego Fire and Rescue Department.”

Fighting fires, by the numbers

After wildfire season began early this year in California, the state used $106.5 million of its $182 million emergency firefighting fund as of Sept. 1 - causing many to worry whether San Diego could be in the same boat.
Despite the budget problems hitting the state, San Diego has actually seen a rise in funding since 2005. Four years ago, the fire department had $148.5 million in funding; the city has roughly $201 million allocated to fire protection in the current fiscal year.

Jarman said the gradual amount of funding hitting her department is helping. She said San Diego has already seen four new fire engines come into the city and should expect another 10 to come in the next six months. In addition, two new fire stations have opened in Pacific Highlands and in the Mission Valley communities.

Fire Chief discusses fire readiness in San Diego.

“It’s still a challenge,” Jarman said. “But, we continue to make strides. Everybody’s aware that we need more fire stations but I think (Mayor Jerry Sanders and the City Council) have made public safety number one.”

Jarman also said the department is looking into different grants and recently received one to update its technology system.

Falling behind in funding

Despite Jarman’s assurance that firefighters are prepared this fire season, a recent study shows the county lags behind Orange and Los Angeles Counties when it comes to funding.

The analysis, conducted by the National University System Institute for Policy Research, found that fire departments and emergency medical services throughout San Diego County will spend $153.75 for each person in the region this fiscal year, compared to $190.44 in Orange County and $219.77 in Los Angeles County.

“The San Diego region has experienced two of the worst wildfires in California history,” in 2003 and 2007, said the institute’s president Erik Bruvold. “It is surprising that policymakers have not found a way to significantly increase fire protection spending. There have been a myriad of meetings, reports and calls to action. That hasn’t, unfortunately, resulted in the kind of investments one finds in other California counties facing a similar danger.”

The report also shows that staffing at the five largest fire departments in San Diego County declined by 8.5 firefighters each, while the three largest fire departments in Orange County increased staffing by 98 positions and those in Los Angeles County increased staffing by 233, according to the institute.

While politics comes into play inside government, it is less of a factor at individual stations. San Diego fire fighters are doing all they can with the funding they have to ensure their residents are safe.

Earlier this year, members of the San Diego City Firefighters Local 145 accepted a six percent salary cut along with other city employees and union-members.

“With the financial challenges, I was really proud of our firefighters,” Jarman said. “They recognized their neighbors are suffering, everybody’s suffering from the financial crisis not just the city. They realized it, stepped up and did their part.”

‘It’s a passion’

Capt. John Wood of the city’s downtown station said the funding is important when it comes to resources but for actual employees, funding isn’t as important as another trait.

“Not many people would go to the office and say, ‘I’ll die today for this job’,” Wood said. “You’re never going to rich off this job, but it’s a passion for everyone who’s in it.”

Wood said the fire department already runs in the most efficient manner too. Although many are not aware of it, San Diego’s fire department serves as a “multi-jurisdictional department” with firefighters crossed-trained in different areas. The city’s bomb squad is part of the agency, compared to many other cities where it is independent or part of the police department. (Wood is the commander.) The department also shares resources with FBI and ATF members. In addition, most firefighters are medically trained to respond to a variety of calls.

The training for firefighters is intense. Wood said firefighters are required to attend the local academy for 14 weeks and attend numerous trainings after joining a station. In addition, each firefighter trains for two hours daily on a variety of skills.

Life safety and wildfires

After the catastrophe of the 2003 California wildfires, San Diego enlisted the services of veteran firefighter J.P. Harris, who offers pro bono free wildfire training to multiple jurisdictions in the county.

“We did a lot of that training before the 2007 fires at the fire chief and battalion level. After that, we trained the entire department and opened it up to other departments,” Jarman said. “When you don’t have a lot of resources it’s important to deploy those resources as effectively as you can.”

As a result, the department didn’t have any fatal or serious injuries in the 2007 wildfires.

“The number one thing is life safety,” Jarman said. “I can replace a house. I can’t replace a person.”