Encinitas council opts against study of fire station closures
The Encinitas City Council declined to order an independent study for a city activist’s proposal to close two fire stations and boost the number of ambulances during a special meeting Jan. 12 dedicated to emergency services.
For years, Bob Bonde of the Encinitas Taxpayers Association has argued that restructuring the Encinitas Fire Department would save millions of dollars and improve response times. However, local firefighters at the meeting sounded the alarm, saying Bonde’s proposal would do just the opposite.
Specifically, Bonde has called for:
• Closing Fire Station No. 1 in downtown Encinitas and Fire Station No. 4 in Village Park, stating they’re redundant;
• Withdrawing from a regional ambulance service and establishing a local program with more ambulances;
• Prioritizing smaller ambulances over fire engines, with the goal of quickening response times;
• “Cross staffing,” so that firefighters respond to medical emergencies in ambulances, leaving fire engines behind.
At the heart of his proposal: Bonde said that medical incidents, not fires, now represent the bulk of the fire department’s emergency calls. Yet, he added, funding for emergency services has focused on fire prevention, rather than medical incidents.
“It receives a disproportionate amount of emphasis, funding, power, status and overall consideration,” Bonde said of fire prevention. “We’re faced with inadequate ambulance service.”
He said that opting out of the regional ambulance service and creating a local program would give the city the needed flexibility to add ambulances.
Last spring, Bonde presented his plan to the council, which directed the fire department to analyze his ideas and emergency response times. On Jan. 12, he said the fire department’s review was an attempt to scare the council away from much-needed reform.
“The proposed closing of two redundant stations and cross-staffing of ambulances is a threat to firefighters, because they know if there are station closures, there will be fewer jobs available,” Bonde said.
Firefighters at the meeting emphasized that they’re trained to handle both fires and medical calls, regardless of the vehicle.
Local firefighters respond to emergencies in fire engines, and they’re usually the first to the scene, according to the firefighters’ presentation. An ambulance later takes patients to a hospital.
Fire Chief Mike Daigle said that fire engines have the equipment to respond to a wide-range of scenarios, from car issues to cardiac arrest.
“There’s a huge liability and risk if you’re always going to play to the minimum,” he said about primarily relying on ambulances.
Daigle said closing fire stations would mean fewer resources to respond to medical emergencies. That’s especially problematic in light of increasing call volumes. And he said he’s not aware of cities similar to Encinitas that have adopted Bonde’s proposed changes.
Mayor Kristin Gaspar said closing fire stations would require that fire engines travel greater distances for emergencies.
“I understand the ultimate goal of (Bonde’s) proposal would be to provide better service for our community,” Gaspar said. “My fear is that in the end, it would actually decrease the level of service.”
Time is of the essence for first responders. Every minute that CPR is not administered after sudden cardiac arrest, the chance of survival decreases 7 to 10 percent, according to statistics from the American Heart Association. And house fires typically double in size every minute, Daigle said.
In an emergency, the department’s goal is to arrive within five minutes 80 percent of the time, Daigle wrote in an email after the meeting. He reported in 2014 that the department’s average response time was 4 minutes and 39 seconds.
The fire department said the opening of the mini-fire station in Olivenhain in 2012 has improved response times.
An official said the city would face complicated hurdles to leave the regional ambulance service, called CSA 17, and start its own.
Mary Murphy, an EMS coordinator with CSA 17, said the city would have to get approval from San Diego LAFCO, requiring a $26,500 fee to even apply. The County Board of Supervisors would also have to sign off. And then, a complicated bidding process begins.
Councilman Tony Kranz said given all the difficult steps, withdrawing would be “a long shot.”
During the section for public comments, resident Sheila Cameron said Bonde is a visionary who championed paramedic training for the fire department and heart defibrillators on every fire engine. The fire department, she said, initially resisted those ideas, but later adopted them.
Cameron added that Bonde’s proposal should be studied to weigh the costs of withdrawing from CSA 17 versus the potential long-term savings.
Laura Wiseman said firefighters’ quick response saved her husband’s life when he had a heart attack. She urged the council not to close any stations.
Resident Steven Loopie said, “There’s no way you can spin closing a fire house into increasing public safety service.”
Councilman Mark Muir, the city’s former fire chief, made a motion to receive Bonde’s proposal and not order an independent study. The council approved the motion, but only after confirming that the motion wouldn’t entirely shut the door on a fire department study down the line.