Fatal fire raises concerns about brownouts in Calif.

Recent cutbacks in San Diego's emergency services delayed water to the scene of an apartment building fire


City News Service

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — A senior citizen was found dead in his Golden Hill apartment today after flames tore through the residence.

The mid-morning blaze in the 2200 block of Broadway also left nearly 50 residents temporarily homeless, caused close to $1 million worth of property damage and raised concerns about recent cutbacks in San Diego's emergency services.

Flames began spreading in a front room of the fourth-floor residence just south of Balboa Park about 8 a.m., according to the San Diego Fire Rescue Department.

Crews from a fire station a quarter-mile to the east arrived less than 30 seconds after receiving a 911 call reporting the blaze, SDFRD spokesman Maurice Luque said.

Told that a resident was believed to be inside the burning apartment, firefighters tried to enter, but were unable to do so due to intense heat, smoke and flames, Luque said.

Fire-engine personnel from a Barrio Logan station, meanwhile, arrived about 4 1/2 minutes after the emergency call was placed. While putting out the flames, which took about 20 minutes, crews found the man's body near a bathroom inside the charred residence.

His identity was withheld pending notification of his family.

No other injuries were reported.

The blaze displaced all 48 residents of the 24-unit building. The American Red Cross was called in to help them arrange for interim shelter.

Investigators determined the fire was sparked either by a space heater in the deceased resident's living room or by faulty electrical cords near the appliance, Luque said. Total damage to the structure and contents, including smoke and water damage, was put at $900,000.

The first emergency vehicle to arrive at the burning apartment building was a fire truck, a type of apparatus that carries no water or fire hoses. The firehouse that sent it — Station 11, at Broadway and 25th Street — could not deploy its fire engine to douse the flames because of a service "brownout" program the city recently instituted due to budget shortfalls.

Under the cost-cutting measure, 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 out of service each day. The firefighters that typically staff those vehicles fill in for other crew members who are absent from duty.

The plan, which went into effect Feb. 6, is aimed at saving the city about $11.5 million in overtime expenditures.

It was unclear if a quicker response to this morning's apartment fire by a crew equipped with hoses and water might have made a rescue possible, according to Luque.

"The fact is, if the engine could have been there in 26 seconds, too, would it have made a difference ... Would the (resident) have been saved? I can't say," Luque said. "I don't know ... It's one of those things that you can debate."

When the City Council was considering the so-called brownout proposal, Mayor Jerry Sanders and Fire Chief Javier Mainar acknowledged that such cutbacks carried the potential to make the public less safe.

"Everybody's been on record saying we may have some negative outcomes from them," Luque said.

This afternoon, Alex Roth, a spokesman for Sanders, declined comment on the matter, referring all questions to the Fire Department.

Councilwoman Marti Emerald's office, conversely, issued a statement addressing the crew-reduction issue in light of the fatal blaze. Emerald heads the council's Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee.

"From the beginning, Councilmember Emerald has been seriously concerned about the potential impact on public safety posed by the engine-closure program," the statement read. "She plans to confer with the fire chief and the mayor's office to confirm the facts of this case and to support whatever budgetary changes are necessary to protect public safety."

The brownout program involves all the "double house" fire 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 staff reductions.

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

The brownout strategy was part of a plan that Sanders floated last year in a bid to close a $179 million budget shortfall. The City Council approved the proposed cuts in December.

Shortly before the firefighter staff changes 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 stated then. "We should all be concerned about this."

The following San Diego 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; and
  • Station 44, Mira Mesa, 10011 Black Mountain Road.

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