SD Fire Dept. Gets More Calls As Response Times Lengthen

Investigation By 10News, Watchdog Institute And Union-Tribune Reveals Emergency Response Times

The San Diego Fire Department is receiving more calls for emergencies than ever before while the department's budget gets slashed.

A joint investigation by the 10News I-Team and 10News' media partners at the Watchdog Institute and Union-Tribune revealed exactly how long it takes firefighters to respond to emergencies.

See fire response times in your neighborhood

"If we don't get to you quickly, you're going to lose a 10 percent chance of survival for every minute that goes by," said San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar.

Mainar said since his first day on the job, the city has cut fire resources as his department fields more calls than ever before.

"I have a need to start new fire stations clearly," said Mainar. "But first I need to restore the resources that were in the city."

Must answer the question of whether saving money is adding to a different problem, such as the fire department's ability to respond quickly.

When asked if public safety was in jeopardy because of the financial crisis, Mainar responded, "I wouldn't say it's in jeopardy."

He said the department does a good job with everyday emergencies but would have a hard time covering a major catastrophe.

10News, along with the Watchdog Institute at San Diego State University and 10News' media partner, the San Diego Union-Tribune examined fire response times over the past six years.

The average time to medical calls peaked in 2005 at 5 minutes, 21 seconds and bottomed out in 2009 at 4 minutes, 58 seconds. So far this year, the average is 5 minutes and 2 seconds.

When responding to calls when something is actually on fire, it takes longer for the department. In that six-year span, the only year the department was under 5 minutes was last year at 4 minutes, 57 seconds. This year, they are on pace to beat last year's time by a second.

However, these times are only in a best case scenario, when every resource the fire department has is being used. That is not happening anymore.

While the city has not laid off any firefighter because of the budget, they have not hired any more. This forces the fire department to brown out certain trucks and engines because there are not enough firefighters working to staff them.

Since the brownouts started in February, it takes 5 minutes and 3 seconds to get to a medical call and 4 minutes and 59 seconds for a fire call.

Mainar believes reducing the response time would save lives.

The National Fire Protection Association agrees and sets the standard for fire departments, which should typically arrive on the scene within five minutes.

But that is not what happened in Golden Hill in March, when Sam Taylor died in his burning apartment.

"They could have got here in more than enough time and they could've saved my grandfather," said Angela Brown, Taylor's granddaughter.

Budget cuts forced the closest engine, which was blocks away from the fire, out of service.

Fire investigators said the fire did not contribute to Taylor's death, but Mainar admitted money equals life for some people and that slowed response times could kill.

"You could make that analysis," said Mainar. "You need a number of resources to make a difference in someone's life."

He hopes those resources come soon.

"My plea is to please put us at the front of the line when new revenues come forward," said Mainar.

In a statement, the office of Mayor Jerry Sanders said, "It's certainly no secret that the recession has impacted every big city in America. Here in San Diego, however, we've done a much better job than most in dealing with it, especially in minimizing its impact on core city services."