ENCINITAS — A local activist cleared the first major hurdle in his mission to save the city what he believes will be millions in altering the way it does fire service.
After 19 years of trying to pitch his municipal cost-saving plan — which calls for increased ambulance service and the closure of two fire stations — Bob Bonde, president of the Encinitas Taxpayers Association, presented his 121-page plan to the Encinitas City Council Wednesday.
The council, in response, unanimously agreed to move forward with vetting the merits of his survey by first allowing the city’s fire chief to respond.
“After 19 years, obviously, any forward movement is appreciated,” Bonde said following the meeting. “This was a good first step.”
Bonde’s plan is dubbed “Common Sense: Emergency Services Enhancement Program.” It calls for the city to do the following:
• Create its own local ambulance service and boost number of ambulances in the city
• Use the smaller emergency service vehicles to respond to medical calls instead of fire engines
• Cross staff the additional ambulances with existing fire crews
• Close Fire Stations No. 1 and No. 4, in historic Encinitas and Village Park, respectively, which Bonde argues are redundant
• Perform an independent cost benefit analysis of the city’s current emergency services model to see if an alternative would save the city money.
According to the report, Bonde said he believes his plan would save $3.6 million from the closures alone, and the city would see improved emergency response times.
He points to the city of Los Angeles, where he said LA Fire Department has deployed more ambulances to improve response times.
Currently, according to Bonde’s presentation, the city has two ambulances on duty during the day and one during the night hours, compared to Rancho Santa Fe, which has three ambulances on duty.
Bonde’s premise lies in the fact that today, 95 percent of firefighter’s duties deal with medical aid and similar calls, a major shift in the traditional role of firefighters.
Bonde acknowledges that the plan would cause lead to slower response times to catastrophic fires or other major incidents because fire crews would have to return from ambulances to fire engines. But, according to his research, the city faces few major emergencies, thus the probability of this happening is slim.
It would also increase the workload on firefighters, Bonde said.
“In comparison, up to 95 percent of all calls could be responded to quicker by ambulances than by fire engines,” Bonde said. “It makes no sense to use fire engines as first responders to calls except for fire, major vehicle accidents and rare special need calls when ambulances can … do the job just as well, quicker and far less expensively.”
A host of residents urged the city to take Bonde’s proposal seriously.
“Bob Bonde presented a proposal that suggests getting out of the (county service area) that costs us a lot of time and money…and is an efficient, cost-saving concept that will benefit and improve the health and welfare of Encinitas citizens, so which is more important,” former Councilwoman Sheila Cameron said.
Rhonda Graves, who lives in Olivenhain, spoke about the death of her son, who was struck by a drunk driver in 1989. She said it took paramedics 50 minutes to get to her son because the city’s lone ambulance was on another call. She was told by hospital officials that the “system didn’t work that night.”
“That is just not acceptable, and I don’t think it should be acceptable to any citizen of Encinitas,” she said. “We need more ambulances.”
Two fire representatives expressed skepticism in the proposal, which it said could cost the city in the event of a major catastrophe.
“The resources (to fight such incidents) might be expensive, but they pale in comparison to the cost incurred if we didn’t have them, as any one of these events can easily cause millions and billions of additional costs, not to mention the possibility of lives lost if we are not prepared,” said Jim Mickelson, president of the Encinitas Firefighters Association.
Bonde’s most recent attempt to have his plan heard ended up in a small controversy, after he was initially turned away from the city’s Traffic and Public Safety Commission meeting in April before City Manager Gus Vina informed the commission to allow Bonde to speak.
Following the incident, the council voted unanimously to allow Bonde to present the plan at council chambers.
The Council expressed skepticism that Bonde’s plan could get beyond the first major hurdle: the city convincing the county, which manages Encinitas’ ambulance service as part one of two county service areas it administers.
County Service Area No. 17 includes Encinitas, Del Mar, Del Mar Heights, Solana Beach, Rancho Santa Fe and portions of Elfin Forest.
Kristin Gaspar said the county — and other cities in the service area — might not sign off on Encinitas’ withdrawal because it will increase costs to the other communities.
“I can’t see any upside for the county to allow the city to withdraw,” Gaspar said. “If the city takes its funding, other surrounding cities are forced to pay more.”
Additionally, Gaspar said, the city potentially would have to create another agency to manage the city’s dealings with insurance companies and Medicare that would be created by taking on ambulance service.
“There are a lot of costs that need to be discussed,” she said.
Council, however, agreed that the proposal does deserve more than just a cursory glance.
Bob Bonde wasn’t prevented from speaking at the city’s Traffic and Public Safety Commission meeting. Bonde presented his plan to the commission. The commission did have some confusion over whether the commission or the public could comment on the proposal afterwards. Encinitas City Manager Gus Vina informed the commission that comments on the proposal were allowed.