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Meeting our First Public Priority

As published in San Diego News Network

by Steve Francis

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Almost all public officials say that public safety is the top priority of government. Actions, however, speak louder than words.

A recent report by the National University System Institute for Policy Research (which I founded when it was known as the San Diego Institute and where I currently serve as advisory committee co-chair) indicates that San Diego’s per-capita investments in firefighting and emergency medical services still lags far behind that of Orange and Los Angeles counties. Whereas San Diego invested a $154 last year in those vital services, Orange County jurisdictions spent $190 and Los Angeles $220.

In a region that has suffered two of the worst wildfires in U.S. history this decade, that is unacceptable, and it has to change.

It is imperative that the San Diego region have more firefighters so as to be able to hit future wildfires hard in the initial hours of the fight without drawing down baseline manpower to unacceptable and dangerous levels. While California’s mutual-aid system works to help maximize manpower levels during extended wildfires, the reality is that it takes time for that system to activate, for firefighters from other jurisdictions to arrive, and to mobilize to fight the fires. In the interim, the region is largely on its own in trying to deal with the first 12 to 36 hours of a wildfire storm. Moreover, that voluntary system is becoming frayed, as evidenced by the City of San Francisco’s decision to turn down a request from Los Angeles to send fire fighters to fight the Station Fire earlier this month. Who will we turn to when our neighbors are busy fighting fires and financial constraints in their own backyard?

We also need to have reserve fire engines on standby and well positioned that can advance recalled firefighters to the fight quickly. If the County Grand Jury’s and San Diego Fire Safety Forum’s recommendations to procure 50 additional fire engines was implemented it would mean 200 additional recalled fire fighters would be available to combat the next major wildfire or provide backup coverage from areas where active duty personnel have responded.

It is near negligent for the City of San Diego not to have identified a viable long term plan to increase the number of fire stations (and thus fire crews) that serve our community. Whereas national standards are for one fire station for every 5 square miles, the community of Rancho Bernardo has one station serving a 26 square mile area.

Underlying all these issues is the core public priority to secure a permanent source of revenue to better prepare our region for wildfire season rather than limp along from budget cycle to budget cycle. It is one of the reasons why I so strongly advocated for the ability of local communities to come together and, should a majority of residents wish, secure additional revenues to improve fire safety and preparedness.

It is also why the City needs to strongly consider, by ordinance, setting a minimum funding level for fire and emergency medical services and a mandate coverage and response standards. While such benchmarks need to be realistically set, it is clear that even in the face of devastating wildfires and failure to get response times down to national standards, the City is unable to make fire firefighting the kind of priority it needs to be.

This funding disparity should give pause to policy makers who wish to increase taxes to pay for things like new convention centers, “bet on the come” that the City of San Diego will save money on its leases if it constructs a new City Hall or that now is the time to hope that donations materialize to finance a replacement for the City’s admittedly decrepit Main Library. Tax revenues are not unlimited. That is doubly so when it comes to potential new sources. Choices need to be weighed and considered not in isolation but as competing needs.

Consider, for example, financing the proposed third phase of the convention center by increasing the city’s hotel tax. Supporters want to focus on the gaudy figure of a potential $694 million direct and indirect economic impact from the expansion. What they have not talked about is that this needs to be considered in relationship to the size of the region’s overall economy ($168 billion). In other words, raising taxes on hotels to a likely the highest sustainable level to finance an expansion would only increase regional economic activity .41% (or on a per capita basis less than $25 a year).

Finally, and most difficult, is the need for a plan that would lead to the establishment of a large, professionally staffed county fire department. In addition to funding levels, another notable difference between Orange and Los Angeles counties and our region is the presence to our north of the Orange County Fire Authority and L.A. County Fire. Each has budgets that are larger that the San Diego Fire and Rescue. In the case of OCFA, it can deploy more than 2,000 fire fighters while LA County Fire is 4,000+ strong. Perhaps most critical, each has contract agreements with many small and medium sized jurisdictions in their respective counties, providing a means by which to save on duplicative administrative costs and increase the amount of money available for fire fighting and emergency medical services.

Thankfully, San Diego has not yet experienced a bad Santa Ana event this year. The hot northeast winds have not howled. But even if we are lucky this year, the conditions are primed for another devastating wildfire. With that danger facing us it is imperative we reflect on the unsatisfactory track record of underinvestment in our region and call upon our elected officials to address root causes of the problem.