La Jolla's Fire Station 13 was put in service when female firefighters were far fewer than they are now. Evidence of this is a sliding sign on the door to one of the station's two bathrooms that alternates between the words “men” and “women” for when the station's two female firefighters are on duty. As for sleeping arrangements, three firefighters share one bedroom with a bookcase, some cardboard shelving and a plastic curtain offering the only means for privacy. The 14-year-old fire station, formerly a two-bedroom, two-bathroom family home built in the 1970s, resembles summer-camp barracks more than it does a public-safety facility.
Recently, the La Jolla Light newspaper did a series of stories on the area's public-safety deficiencies, the too-small fire station among them. Light publisher Brendan Ruff was surprised by the incongruity between the aging firehouse and the community it serves. “It's embarrassing to see people who are protecting not only these wonderful homes but also the people living in these homes and they hardly have room to do anything, much less do their jobs, in this little facility,” he said.
Ruff heads the La Jolla Sunrise Rotary, a public charity group. Another Rotary member, Tripp Bennett, is an architect. Bennett's son is a firefighter. Ruff invited Bennett over to check out the fire station. Fast-forward a few months and Bennett's drawn up plans to renovate the station-renovations include separate bedrooms for each of the four firefighters on duty-and has convinced several construction and engineering companies to donate $100,000 in services. Ruff said the Rotary is hoping to raise $350,000 in cash from La Jollans to cover other costs.
Underscoring the fundraising effort is the memory of Rotary member Jack Morse who, with his wife, was rescued by Station 13 firefighters from a massive fire that destroyed the couple's home. Morse was severely burned and later died from his injuries, but his wife survived.
Fire Station 13 is one of a dozen stations in San Diego badly in need of rehabilitation, according to the city's 42-page list of unfunded capital-improvement projects. (Notably, the list says renovations to Station 13 would cost more than $3 million; Ruff says the Sunrise Rotary plans to do it for roughly $500,000.)
Among other fire-station projects on the list, downtown's Fire Station 1 needs asbestos removal; Mission Valley's Fire Station 45 needs a home (the station currently consists of a tent and trailer in a corner of the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot); and City Heights Fire Station 17, with its 1-firefighter-to-20,000-citizens ratio (compared with the 1-to-1,500 ratio citywide) desperately needs room for more staff.
Michael Sprague, who heads the City Heights Planning Committee, said expanding the 50-year-old Station 17 is a priority. “It has the most service calls of any fire station in the city,” Sprague said. “The number of calls is incredible. So are they strained? Yeah.” Though, despite serving 13 times the number of residents than the average, Fire Station 17 has among the best response times in San Diego, according to Fire Department data. “They do an astonishingly good job,” Sprague said.
Sprague doubts the Mid-City Rotary could drum up enough money to rehab Station 17. “I don't think they have the wherewithal to take on a project like that,” he said.
Ruff acknowledged that La Jolla's affluence is driving the project. “Not every community necessarily has the means to support the stations, but, fortunately, La Jolla does, so we can fix at least this one up and hope that others do the same.”
Far more costly than a rehab, San Diego needs 22 new fire stations and more than 400 additional personnel, according to a report by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International, which took San Diego to task earlier this year-denying the city accreditation-for, among other deficiencies, fire stations and personnel that are expected to protect too many people and too-large areas. The national standard, set by the accreditation commission, says a station shouldn't have to protect an area larger than nine square miles; one-quarter of the fire stations in San Diego exceed that. The personnel standard is one firefighter to 1,000 residents, a standard that none of San Diego's fire companies currently meet.
The accreditation report also criticized the city for not allowing the fire department enough input in the community planning process. “The fire department wasn't always included to say how [new development is] going to affect their response times,” said Katie Keach, spokesperson for the city's firefighters union.
Station 33, which covers Rancho Bernardo, protects a 28-square-mile area, Keach said, “and the standard is nine square miles or less. So they have this huge area and that's where more [homes] are being built. So I think that is what part of the issue was-to... say, ‘Let's only build in the areas where there's coverage or, more ideally, add fire stations and fire personnel to those areas.'”
Rehabbing a fire station doesn't necessarily improve response time, Keach said, but it is a quality-of-life issue. The size and condition of a station “certainly affects the crews who are working and living there,” she said, “because they're there for 24-hour shifts.”
Some stations lack central air conditioning and therefore rely on window units-a minor detail in the larger scheme of things, but, again, one of those quality-of-life items.
Funding for fire station projects is limited for a number of reasons: money for such infrastructure needs comes from fees, taxes, municipal bonds and the city's general fund. The latter is squeezed because more and more money is being earmarked for the city's under-funded pension system. Bonds are, right now, out of the question since Wall Street's suspended San Diego's credit rating pending a complete accounting of city finances-no one's quite sure when that will happen.
Fees assessed on new development projects haven't always kept pace with the rate of development-Mission Valley, a community that lacked a fire station until the temporary site at Qualcomm was erected in February, only recently, at the behest of City Councilmember Donna Frye, whose district includes Mission Valley, upped the fees it collects from developers from $2,307 per unit to $11,621 per unit to cover needed infrastructure. Frye said it was her understanding that a community's facilities financing plan-guidelines that say how much a developer must contribute to infrastructure costs-were supposed to be reassessed every couple of years to make sure fees were keeping pace with growth.
“It was just one of those things that wasn't getting done. Exactly what was the reason for that, I don't know,” she said. The current City Council, Frye noted, has been more diligent than its predecessors in updating those plans, but there are years of short funding to make up for.
Proposition 13 is perhaps the biggest culprit. Passed in 1978, it's left cities throughout California strapped for infrastructure funds. The landmark initiative put a cap on property taxes and made it unconstitutional for state and local governments to raise taxes without approval from two-thirds of voters.
“The local government could provide a lot more if we didn't have Prop. 13,” said Charlene Gabriel, head of facilities financing for the city. “Prop. 13 kind of put a crunch on everything because every year we go backwards a little bit.”
San Diego gets to keep a fraction of 1 percent of the property-tax revenue it does collect; the rest of the money goes to the state. “So if you think your property taxes should be paying for all of this, they probably should if we could get them, but the way the state divvies up the property taxes, what's happened over time since Prop. 13 is that with the rising cost of labor and those kind of things, we're barely paying for our operations and we're not doing a very good job on our maintenance, either,” Gabriel said.
The Center on Policy Initiatives, a left-wing think tank, last year put together a report that looked at what San Diegans pay in fees compared to other cities in California. The report concluded that the city could generate close to $300 million in revenue each year if it raised certain fees and taxes-the transit-occupancy tax; or TOT (a tax levied on hotel rooms); trash collection fee; real-estate transfer tax; business license fees-to the average of what's paid in California's 10 largest cities. Upping the TOT by 2 percentage points would generate an additional $10 million a year. The City Council could vote to earmark that money for public-safety. Two recent attempts to raise that tax failed-one of those votes came a year after the Cedar and Paradise fires, but even the deficiencies in emergency services the fires exposed weren't enough to convince voters.
“It's a tax that we vote on that we don't pay for,” said CPI spokesperson Paul Karr about the TOT. But, he added, “in the general public, just the idea of a tax, any tax, whatever it might be, just doesn't sit well with folks.”
Karr said getting such a tax passed comes down to leadership. Dick Murphy, mayor at the time, opposed the tax.
“There wasn't a leader who stood up and said, ‘I believe in this so much it's going to be my priority.' We haven't seen that kind of leadership on this issue before.... Fire safety for folks in San Diego, generally-not so high a priority on their list,” Karr said.