After the driest year in California history, the state's fire season is off to an ominous start. Since January, California has suffered more than 810 wildfires, three times the average for this time of year, according to data from CalFire.
However, despite concerns stretching back to last fall, the San Diego Fire Department may be ill-prepared to battle the next big blaze here in the region. The department lacks access to adequate reserve fire engines because of the city's inability to keep up with needed repairs, according to a city-contracted audit of its Fleet Maintenance Services dated Feb. 10.
"This greatly limits both the ability of the San Diego Fire Department to handle emergency situations within its own jurisdiction and the ability to support other organizations by providing spare units," the audit report by Huron Consulting Group concluded.
As of the beginning of last week, there were only three fully equipped reserve fire engines ready for use, Fire Department officials say. The department has roughly 30 reserve engines that, if properly maintained, could be ready for emergencies.
The Fire Department has requested the city start maintaining at least "15 to 20" fully repaired reserve engines, "as soon as possible," said Fire Chief Javier Mainer in an email sent by a spokesperson.
"We have been working closely with public works fleet division, the Mayor's office and City Council to ensure we have an adequate number of reserve fire engines available to provide for a surge capacity that will allow us to deploy additional firefighters in the event of a large wildfire or other emergency," Mainer said.
The city plans to address the Fire Department's concerns, said Mayor Kevin Faulconer, also in an email sent by a spokesperson. "It's my strong desire to give Chief Mainer and all of our brave city firefighters all the tools necessary to do their jobs to the best of their abilities."
So, what's the hold up?
Since 2011, Fleet Services—the division of the city's Public Works Department that repairs the city's roughly 4,030 vehicles, including golf carts, garbage trucks and fire engines—has accumulated 66 vacancies out of 249 original staff positions. The workers were never replaced because officials with Fleet Services were in the process of eliminating a total of 92 positions under a program known as managed competition.
Approved by voters in 2006, managed competition was billed as a way to improve government efficiency. The program allows private companies to bid alongside public employees for city contracts. The Mayor's office has the final say on who wins the contract, but a private-sector bid must cost at least 10 percent less than the public-employee proposal to even be considered.
Under managed competition, Fleet Services agreed to shave roughly $4 million from its annual budget, bringing last year's cost to roughly $51.7 million.
However, Fleet Services could have bid 20 percent (roughly $10 million) higher and still won the competition, according to a staff report done under former Mayor Bob Filner that was never officially released.
In stern opposition to the process, Filner put managed competition on hold, which prevented workers from being transferred within divisions at Fleet Services until labor negotiations could occur. As a result, the divisions that lost the most workers through attrition were hit the hardest. For example, the division that repairs fire engines lost five of its 17 employees.
The city is in labor negotiations to reassign workers according to department needs, Faulconer said.
"The full implementation of managed competition in Fleet Services should lead to greater efficiency and therefore additional reserve engines being available on a daily basis," he said.
Once the negotiations are complete, full implementation of managed competition will take about four to six months, said Craig Gustafson, spokesperson for the mayor.
"Unfortunately, the Fleet Services managed competition stalled under former Mayor Bob Filner and was never implemented," he said.
After labor negotiations, further reductions in staff are unlikely, said Public Works Director James Nagelvoort at last week's meeting of the City Council's Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee.
"We do not believe this will actually result in employees losing employment," he said. "It doesn't mean they'll end up with the job they want. Where they get placed, not everyone will be satisfied."
Whether shifting people around will fix Fleet Services' problem in the long run remains to be seen. However, to mitigate short-term risk, the city needs to "adjust staffing levels" or "supplement resources through outsourcing," according to the audit report.
Since last fall, Fleet Services has contracted with several private vendors, as well as approved overtime for all employees who maintain fire vehicles, Nagelvoort said at the committee meeting.
"We'll probably need to maintain overtime for awhile," he said. "We're also talking about perhaps we might reach out to provisional employees to see if they might want to come back for a short period of time to assist."
Since 2011, the size of the city's fleet has increased by 70 vehicles, Nagelvoort added. "Our workload has increased since we bid. Also the demand and the needs of our customers may be changing."
The City Council is scheduled to discuss the audit report at its April 8 meeting.
"We'll need some flexibility going forward to see if we have to make changes or renegotiate with ourselves, basically, on making sure this fleet maintenance is going to meet our needs," City Councilmember Marti Emerald said at the committee meeting.