Fire Chief: 'Brownouts' May Have Played Role In Child's Death

Bentley Do, 2, Dies After Choking On Gumball

Cutbacks in the city's emergency-services staffing may have played a role in the death of a toddler who choked on a gumball at his Mira Mesa home, Fire Chief Javier Mainar acknowledged Wednesday.

"Brownouts had a negative impact on our ability to provide service in this case," Mainar said at a midday briefing called in response to Tuesday night's death of 2-year-old Bentley Do. "What I cannot say is whether we could have saved (the boy's) life had we been there sooner."

Bentley's family made an emergency call shortly before 8:30 p.m. to report that the boy had stopped breathing, according to police and the county Medical Examiner's Office.

Although there is a San Diego Fire-Rescue Department station a block from the Dos' home, its engine personnel were on a call, filling in for another Mira Mesa station whose crew was unavailable due to the city's emergency-service "brownout" program, instituted last winter due to budget constraints.

Because of the staffing and equipment unavailability, an engine had to be sent from the South Bay. It arrived 9 1/2 minutes after the family's 911 call.

By then, police officers were at the home -- they had arrived within about five minutes -- and were performing CPR on the stricken child. Paramedics took over and took Bentley to Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, where he was pronounced dead about 9:45 p.m., officials said.

The chief told reporters his department's goal is to respond to emergencies within the national standard of five minutes at least 90 percent of the time.

Mainar described the delay in emergency response to the toddler's fatal choking episode as a disturbing demonstration of the problems inherent in the brownout program.

"I've had better days, I will tell you, both as the fire chief and as a parent of three children," he said. "I don't even know how you begin to deal with the death of a child. ... I don't know that we could have ... saved Bentley had we gotten there more quickly, but as a parent I will tell you I would always want that five-minute chance if I could have it for my family."

Under the cost-cutting service reductions, engine companies at 13 of the city's 47 fire stations are deactivated for a month at a time on a rotating basis, leaving up to eight of them unavailable each day. The firefighters that typically staff those vehicles fill in for other crew members who are absent from duty.

The program, which went into effect Feb. 6, is aimed at saving the city about $11.5 million in overtime expenditures. The strategy was part of a proposal that Mayor Jerry Sanders floated last year in a bid to close a $179 million budget shortfall. The City Council approved the cuts in December.

Councilwoman Marti Emerald has been adamant about the need to return the affected fire stations to full service, but so far she and other city leaders have been unable to identify a viable funding source.

The brownout program involves all the "double house" stations in the city -- those that normally have trucks and engines at their disposal. "Single house" stations, which only have engines, are not subject to the rotating reductions.

Even before the cutbacks went into effect, nearly two dozen firehouses in San Diego already fell short of a nationally accepted standard for response times, according to Emerald.

Shortly before the brownouts went into effect, Emerald warned that they would create "an additional 13 percent reduction in available fire crews and equipment."

"We are patching the budget deficit by cutting public-safety services," the councilwoman said. "We should all be concerned about this."

The following firehouses are subject to the rotating staff reductions:

  • Station 1, downtown, 1222 First Ave.
  • Station 4, downtown, 404 Eighth Ave.
  • Station 10, College area, 4605 62nd St.
  • Station 11, Golden Hill, 945 25th St.
  • Station 12, Lincoln Park, 4964 Imperial Ave.
  • Station 14, North Park, 4011 32nd St.
  • Station 20, Midway, 3305 Kemper St.
  • Station 21, Pacific Beach, 750 Grand Ave.
  • Station 28, Kearny Mesa, 3880 Kearny Villa Road
  • Station 29, San Ysidro, 198 W. San Ysidro Blvd.
  • Station 35, University City, 4285 Eastgate Mall
  • Station 40, Rancho Penasquitos, 13393 Salmon River Road
  • Station 44, Mira Mesa, 10011 Black Mountain Road