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San Diego Fire Rescue struggles with response times, closes some coverage gaps

An internal analysis of 700,000 emergency calls between 2015 and 2020, shows a drop in how often the city meets its response time goals for general emergencies


The city’s internal analysis, which included 700,000 emergency calls between 2015 and 2020, shows a drop in how often the city meets its response time goals for general emergencies. It met its goals 77 percent of the time in 2015 but 74.6 percent in 2020.

Photo/San Francisco Fire Rescue

David Garrick
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — A new analysis shows San Diego firefighters are responding to general emergencies more slowly in recent years, but they are responding to structure fires more quickly.

The city’s internal analysis, which included 700,000 emergency calls between 2015 and 2020, shows a drop in how often the city meets its response time goals for general emergencies. It met its goals 77 percent of the time in 2015 but 74.6 percent in 2020.

Meanwhile, the city met its response time goals for structure fires 81.9 percent of the time in 2020, up from 78.4 percent in 2015.

The city is well below its goal of arriving on time to 90 percent of both types of emergency calls.

The new numbers come as San Diego struggles to fill 10 service gap areas across the city that were identified in a 2010 study by an outside consultant.

Three of those gaps have been filled and land has been identified for a new station in City Heights to fill a fourth gap. The coverage gaps are identified based on how far a neighborhood is from a fire station.

But city officials said last week that a new response time challenge has emerged in recent years.

The many high-rise and mid-rise buildings being constructed across the city are delaying emergency response times by increasing 9-1-1 call volume in densely populated areas. The more calls a fire station must handle, the slower the overall response times.

In addition to filling in geographic coverage gaps, fire officials say the city may need to add new resources in some areas that have weak response times even though they are relatively close to a station.

One solution to poor response times recommended by a study in 2017 was to add roving “peak-hour” fire engines not connected to any station, and deploying those engines at busy times in busy areas.

City officials said four years ago they planned to add six peak-hour engines, three in 2019 and another three in 2020, but a shortage of firefighters has prevented the city from following through on those plans.

Fire Chief Colin Stowell said last week that the department will soon create a comprehensive plan to add the roving engines, secure land and funding for additional stations, and hire enough firefighters to accomplish those goals.

Two of the three geographic gaps the city has recently filled are in what are called communities of concern, areas with low incomes and significant ethnic diversity that San Diego has neglected for decades.

A temporary fire station opened in the Skyline area of southeastern San Diego, and the Encanto area was given the city’s first “fast-response” squad — a two-person fire crew in a revamped pick-up truck.

City officials also plan to boost coverage along the border with a new station in Otay Mesa that will be funded by developer fees from all the new housing and industrial projects being built in the area.

The third gap that San Diego has already filled is in University City, where a new station has begun operating on Shoreline Drive. A second new station is planned for the UC-San Diego campus, which would fill another gap identified in 2010.

Stowell said the city’s No. 1 coverage gap remains City Heights, which could be filled by a new station on land the city has acquired at Fairmount Avenue and 47th Street. City officials have money to design the station, but they haven’t secured funding to build it.

The city hasn’t made significant progress filling any of the other remaining gaps, Stowell said. They are in Pacific Beach, Paradise Hills, Liberty Station, south University City and neighborhoods near San Diego State.

Because the city receives developer fees to pay for fire stations in many areas, some additional stations are planned in places where there aren’t glaring coverage gaps. Those include Black Mountain Ranch, Torrey Hills and Torrey Pines.

The coverage gaps based on volume of calls instead of geography have also created some new areas of concern, including downtown’s East Village. Stowell said the city has acquired land at Broadway and 13th Street to build a new station.

Another challenge for the department, Stowell said, is that many existing stations were built decades ago, leaving some in dire need of renovations and possible replacement with new structures.

On the new response time data, Stowell didn’t provide any explanation why response times to emergency calls have gotten worse while response times to structure fires have been improving.

Councilmember Marni von Wilpert suggested the city should conduct an audit of emergency responses to determine when too many resources get sent to a particular incident, leaving fewer resources for additional incidents taking place at the same time.

“I know our fire engines and ambulances get called often to events that may not need a fire or paramedic response,” she said. “It could save money for the city’s taxpayers and get the resources to folks that they need.”

Stowell said it’s hard for dispatchers to know which resources to send when people calling 9-1-1 are not effective at describing an emergency in enough detail.

He said the department analyzes how effectively it sends out resources, but he agreed more analysis could help.

“There is a lot of room for improvement,” he said.

On general emergencies, the city’s goal is to arrive within six-and-a-half minutes 90 percent of the time. The city improved slightly, from 77.09 percent in 2015 to 77.13 percent in 2016, but then dipped to 75.28 percent in 2017 and 74.25 percent in 2018.

After a small improvement to 76.08 percent in 2019, the city dropped back down to 74.64 percent in 2020.

On structure fires, the city’s goal is to arrive within nine-and-a-half minutes 90 percent of the time. The city improved from 78.43 percent in 2015 to 80.86 percent in 2016, but then dipped to 77.76 percent in 2017 and 78.12 percent in 2018.

Then came two years of marked improvement, up to 80.72 percent in 2019 and up to 81.91 percent in 2020.

San Diego recently decided to switch ambulance providers for the first time in 24 years. Falck, a Danish company that operates ambulances elsewhere in California, will replace American Medical Response after a six-month transition scheduled to end this fall.

Councilmember Raul Campillo said San Diego needs to prioritize boosting emergency coverage and shrinking response times.

“We have a long way to go to make sure we have enough fire engines, firefighters and fire stations to really protect us,” he said.

The fire department budget approved this week is $322 million in an overall city of budget of $1.7 billion for fiscal 2022.

©2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune