San Diego County wants to increase its firepower in fighting fires – especially massive blazes like those that rampaged across the region in 2003 and 2007.

In a unanimous vote last week, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors approved a consultant’s report that calls for adding 14 fire stations, increasing staffing in the eastern part of the county, and establishing a more centralized command, among other improvements.

“Never before has a study been done that looks across the wide range of jurisdictional lines and at a level of analysis so deep,” said Second District Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who requested the study.

The 210-page report was conducted by Citygate Associates, LLC, a highly respected fire and emergency services consulting firm based in Folsom, CA. The firm surveyed 59 local and state fire agencies within San Diego County, and collected information on more than 627,000 fire and medical emergency incidents that occurred from January 2007 to June 2009.

“The work that you were able to do with cooperation from all of the different firefighting agencies in the region was second-to-none,” First District Supervisor Greg Cox told the Citygate officials at the meeting.

The board asked the county’s Chief Administrative Officer to deliver a plan in four months explaining how the improvements would be implemented.

Walter F. Ekard, Chief Administrative Officer, said about the report, “We work with consultants, obviously, all the time, but the work that Citygate did on this report is some of the best I’ve seen in my tenure here.”

Ron Roberts, Supervisor Fourth District, complimented the study saying, “…I think this is an extraordinary report…it’s professionally done and this is probably one of the best presentations that I personally have ever sat through here…”

To shore up coverage lapses, the report calls for 14 new stations in three cities. Of these, 11 stations are in the City of San Diego costing $72.6 million to construct and $20.1 million a year to operate. The three suburban city fire stations would cost $19.8 million to construct, with an annual operating expense of $5.4 million, according to the report.

Citygate also recommends putting the county’s 50-plus fire agencies under one central command and fire governance group for regional operational and consolidated support service decisions, in an effort to speed response times and increase efficiency. Currently, the various departments are individually commanded and operationally work together through mutual aid agreements and multiple dispatch centers. Citygate said more coordination and consolidation work is needed in the region.

All of the agencies “providing firefighting services need to strongly consider the creation of a formal, representative based authority, with the staff and funding to plan and coordinate countywide multi-agency fire services,” the report said.

Currently the total annual firefighting expense, across all of the agencies countywide, is $517 million, according to a Citygate estimate. San Diego County has a population of 3.2 million people.

The firm also proposes increasing staffing in 18 stations in the more rural, eastern stretches of the county, at a cost of $2.1 million, as well as reducing the county’s five dispatch centers to two.

The improvements in service in the urban areas would provide response times at five minutes travel time, to 90% of the street network or less, Citygate said.

The report’s recommendations garnered local support from local fire chiefs.  “We support all of the recommendations that Citygate came up with,” said August Ghio, President of San Diego Fire Chief’s Association.

Individual cities alone would have to foot the bill for building and staffing the desired additional stations. Some firefighting officials expressed skepticism that such large investments could be made when cities are wrestling with extreme budget shortfalls. In fact, some departments in San Diego County are trying to cut costs by placing some fire engines out of service on a daily, rotating basis.

In 2003 and 2007, wildfires in San Diego killed 27 people and burned 4,000 homes. In 2008, a county parcel tax to raise money for fire services was narrowly rejected by the voters countywide, but had actually passed in the City of San Diego.

Citygate officials conceded that financing the plan would be difficult.

“In assessing the fiscal health and future of local governments in the County of San Diego, Citygate found, in summary, that most cities are struggling financially and will find it difficult to retain current fire service levels.”

More information about the study may be found here on Citygate’s web site.