Fire brownouts ‘damaging,’ analysis finds
By Justin Jouvenal, Staff Writer
Reprinted from the S.F. Examnier - Oct. 8-9, 2005
The temporary closure of fire stations as a cost-cutting measure has had a “damaging effect” on emergency response times across The City, according to an internal San Francisco Fire Department analysis obtained by The Examiner.

San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White reluctantly enacted the policy of shutting down up to four stations a day — a process known as brownouts — in the summer of 2004 as a way to save money as The City faced a budget crunch. When firefighters call in sick, the department takes his or her station out of service instead of paying other firefighters overtime. This year The City added up to two more brownouts a day to save additional funds.

According to the internal analysis, average response times grew longer in all but 2 of 24 areas of The City where fire stations were browned out and, during brownouts, eight of the areas saw response times push past the five-minute benchmark SFFD officials say is crucial to get to a fire or medical emergency.

While nearly all response times increased during brownouts, the extent of the impact varied widely. Most areas of The City saw average response times increase by a matter of seconds, while a handful of areas covered by stations in the Fillmore, Sunset, Richmond, Holly Park and Castro saw increases of a critical minute or more, according to the analysis.

“While the department has tried to mitigate the effects of brownouts, they have had a damaging effect on response times in all of the affected areas,” wrote San Francisco Fire Department acting Lt. Bill Storti, who prepared the analysis at the end of July.

The San Francisco Firefighter’s Union Local 798 and neighborhood groups have criticized brownouts, saying they put city residents at risk. The union has sponsored a ballot measure for the November election, Proposition F, which would restore full service to the Fire Department.

Union president John Hanley said seconds can make the difference in a fire and the increased response times during brownouts make a powerful case for Proposition F.

“A minute is a lifetime,” Hanley said. “Put a match to a piece of paper and see how fast it goes. That’s how fast a fire multiplies.”

Opponents of Proposition F have argued that San Francisco already has too many fire stations. They point to a 2004 audit by the City Controller that showed The City has nearly one fire station per square mile — more than any other comparable city.

Fire department officials said they try to minimize the impact of brownouts by constantly monitoring and shifting resources around the City to cover for browned-out stations. When asked how significant the impact of brownouts on response times was, Deputy Chief Gary Massetani said, “Any time you eliminate a station it is going to have an impact. It could be considered Russian roulette.”


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