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Updated Report Criticizes Fire Spending

Voice of San Diego

Keegan Kyle

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

San Diego County continues to allocate significantly less funding toward fire protection than its urban neighbors to the north, according to an updated report from a local think tank.

The report, produced by the National University System Institute for Policy Research, criticizes the amount of money local government officials have spent on fire and emergency medical services, and says those services are understaffed.

The report summarizes budget expenditures to fire and EMS departments in San Diego, Los Angeles and Orange counties, and compares the counties through population estimates. In the last fiscal year, San Diego spent the least on fire and EMS, with $153 per capita. Los Angeles and Orange counties spent $219 and $190 respectively.

The report also criticizes local governments for not acting on some recommendations stemming from the 2003 and 2007 firestorms to purchase more equipment and hire more firefighters. It commends local governments for adopting administrative and communication changes that did not have any financial impact on their budgets.

The authors of the report are Jeff Bowman, a former chief of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, and Erik Bruvold, founder of the policy institute. It was partially financed by a $19,000 grant from San Diego Gas & Electric.

Jennifer Ramp, a spokeswoman for SDG&E, said the project was funded after the utility saw value in a previous report and sought updated figures. Ramp said the company was not involved in any of the research, writing or timing of the report's release. The report comes one day before the state's Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to decide on the company's controversial shut-off plan.

The institute's report was embargoed until 6 a.m. Wednesday so talking with local leaders familiar with fire protection issues about the study was difficult. Some leaders have received a copy of the report, are reviewing it, and may get back to me with their comments. I'll continue to blog with updates.

At the outset, it's hard to say how effective the report will be in addressing fire protection issues in San Diego County. Many leaders have talked about bolstering fire protection, but say some goals are not realistic in an economic recession. The county voted against a proposition last November that would have added a tax to help increase fire protection funding.

Augie Ghio is the fire chief of the San Miguel Consolidated Fire Protection District and president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association. He said many fire departments are fighting local officials to keep their current levels of funding, and advocating for more resources could be a fruitless battle.

"There's so many other services the city needs. They have to balance their financial resources against that reality," Ghio said. "They're on the right track. What can we reasonably and implementally do to get us there? ... It's not like turning on a light switch."

To read the full report, click on this link. I'll be following up on the report today.