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City tries to speed emergency response.

Originally authored by David Garrik at To see the original article, please click here.

New two-man crews could reshape city’s approach.

A fast-response squad vehicle

SAN DIEGO — San Diego may have found a new way to shorten emergency response times in neighborhoods where they’ve been dismal for years: two-person, fast-response squads.

An unusual approach that might reshape how the city deals with emergencies in the future, fast-response squads could quickly spread across San Diego if a one-year pilot program being launched this summer in Encanto proves successful.

Described by city officials as “mini-fire engines,” the two-person squads would be located in neighborhoods relatively far from fire stations, allowing them to arrive at emergencies in those communities before ambulances and four-person fire engines located farther away.

Once there, the squads could provide medical aid, start fighting smaller fires and assess the scope of the emergency before other personnel arrive, said Deputy Chief Colin Stowell. Their vehicle, a reconfigured pick-up truck, will also have space to transport one patient to a hospital.

The squads won’t be able to fight larger fires, partly because their vehicle won’t have the ability to hook up to fire hydrants.

“It won’t have nearly the capabilities of a fire engine,” Stowell said.

The fast-response squad also won’t be sent in the place of fire engines or ambulances, Stowell said, but will be deployed in addition to other emergency personnel.

However, when the squad responds to an emergency that turns out to be relatively minor, they may notify an engine company or ambulance on its way to turn back, freeing up those resources for other emergencies.

Stowell said city officials plan to carefully study how often that happens in Encanto, where the pilot project is scheduled to begin July 1.

“We will analyze how much this frees up engines that would otherwise be unavailable,” he said.

It might happen quite frequently, because more than 87 percent of city emergencies are medical calls.

A 2011 study recommended San Diego explore adding the squads because they’d be much cheaper and more efficient than building new fire stations in many underserved areas.

That study, compiled by Citygate Associates in Folsom, recommended the city close large gaps in coverage by increasing the number of fire stations in San Diego from 47 to 57. For areas where smaller gaps existed, fast-response squads were recommended.

The study said Encanto would benefit the most from a fast-response squad, with Liberty Station and University City close behind.

Other neighborhoods where such squads would make sense, the study said, are Linda Vista, Mission Valley, East Otay, San Pasqual, Black Mountain Ranch and Scripps Miramar Ranch.

Encanto, in southeast San Diego, is several miles from the two fire stations that serve the community, one in Lincoln Park and one in Paradise Hills.

The study said the station in Lincoln Park met its travel time goal to emergencies 46.1 percent of the time in 2009, while the Paradise Hills station met that goal only 30.5 percent of the time. By comparison, a downtown fire station met its travel-time goal nearly 84 percent of the time.

“It’s a hard-to-get-to-area,” said Ken Marlborough, chairman of the Encanto Community Planning Group and a retired San Diego firefighter. “I’m happy they’re trying this out. These fast-response squads might be efficient and effective for some areas.”

When the idea was first proposed, some firefighters raised concerns about four-person engines being replaced by fast-response squads in parts of the city.

Cory Beckwith, vice president of the firefighters labor union, said those concerns have been mostly alleviated as details about the program have been shared.

“As far as we’re concerned, it’s like a six-person engine company and we’re just going to get more done more quickly,” he said.

Beckwith also said union leaders would get a chance to negotiate any major changes to the city’s approach to firefighting that the fast-response squads might prompt if they’re successful.

He said one key hurdle to the program will be finding locations for the fast-response squads to store their vehicles and equipment.

Plans to locate the pilot program at the Encanto Park and Recreation Center fell through recently when city officials told the Fire Department it would take a public vote to use parkland in that way.

Stowell said city officials now plan to locate the crew in a temporary structure on an empty lot owned by the city. But he said relocating the pilot program to Liberty Station has also been considered.

Beckwith said finding locations would be a bigger problem if the fast-response squads become 24-hour operations. The pilot program is scheduled to operate 12 hours a day, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m..

Beckwith said part of the reason the union fully endorses fast-response squads is that they could reduce response times in neigborhoods that have frustrated firefighters for years.

“When I talk to guys on our staff that may be concerned, I tell them that it’s a pilot program that will benefit the public,” he said. “We take pride in serving the public to the best of our abilities.”


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