SLO City Council mulls emergency response times, possible need for new fire station

San Luis Obispo firefighters can’t meet national emergency response time standards with the city’s four fire stations — a situation that could worsen as a slew of proposed developments are built at the southern end of the city unless a fifth station is added.

On Tuesday, the City Council agreed that a plan for a new station should be pursued.

“I do believe that fire services, along with police and roads, are fundamental services that cities provide,” Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson said, adding that even if other city services were diminished to enhance fire response times, “to get that coverage, to me, that is the trade-off.”

The city fire department’s goal is to meet a national standard of four minutes of travel time to 90 percent of fire and medical emergencies that require a response with lights and a siren (code three).

The fire department’s current response time to 90 percent of code-three emergencies is 9 minutes, 5 seconds. The travel time of 5 minutes, 40 seconds has increased over the past seven years, while calls for service have increased 26 percent, said Stewart Gary, a public safety principal with Citygate Associates.

The developments planned in southern San Luis Obispo would be outside the reach of the city fire department’s four-minute goal, according to consulting firm Citygate, which is updating the city’s Fire Master Plan.

The idea of adding a fifth station to improve fire services was recommended by a city consultant several years ago, but a resurgence in development, along with some large projects planned for the city’s southern edges, has prompted San Luis Obispo officials to reassess emergency response needs.

“In the southern (part of the) city, you have a scattering of infill and proposed subdivisions,” Gary told the City Council. “Your fire service will be strained in the core as you serve infill but also stretched at the outer reaches as you get that growth.”

For example, the Avila Ranch development, located on three separate parcels at the northeast corner of Buckley Road and Vachell Lane, would be outside the four-minute travel time from existing fire stations.

5:40SLO City Fire travel time to 90 percent of code three emergencies, about 25 seconds slower than in 2007-08

4:00Travel time standard for 90 percent of code three emergencies, recommended by the National Fire Protection Association

As part of the update, the council discussed several policy questions: Should a fifth fire station be built and staffed? How would it be funded? Would an interim solution fill the gap in service?

“I hope the (fire master plan) report would go into great detail about the location,” Mayor Jan Marx said. “I would like to get that location secured as soon as possible.”

Locations that have been studied so far are in the area of Tank Farm and Santa Fe roads; an area near Tank Farm Road and Old Windmill Lane; and in the area of the Avila Ranch project south of Suburban Road and north of Buckley Road.

Council members differed on whether construction of the new station or its ongoing operating costs should be paid for with general fund money — essentially spreading the cost throughout the city — or by property owners in the new developments through a property tax assessment in a specific area.

Christianson and Councilman Dan Carpenter said they believed a fifth station would provide communitywide benefits and did not want to pursue a property assessment.

“Our city is growing,” Christianson said. “I don’t think those new people need to be treated differently than our city as a whole.”

The other council members said they wanted to leave all options on the table and get more information.

The city has about 46,500 residents now but could increase to about 51,000 by 2025. There are 31 large developments in the works, with 14 of those in the southern area of the city, according to Community Development Director Michael Codron. They include the Avila Ranch and San Luis Ranch projects, which could collectively add up to 1,200 homes to the city.

I would like to get that location secured as soon as possible.

San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx, referring to a potential location for a fifth fire station

The council agreed that the final report should explore some options to incrementally address coverage gaps, such as adding a crew to respond to medical emergencies while the developments build out.

The council also gave direction to define its four-minute response time as the travel time to code-three emergencies. Citygate recommends a total response time of seven minutes (which includes the time to process the emergency call, dispatch units and travel to a destination).

“We tested moving the current four stations,” Gary said, “and given the topography and road network, even with perfect neighborhood acceptance and money, if you lifted up four stations and replaced them, you can’t cover to the south city limits.”

Cynthia Lambert: 805-781-7929, @ClambertSLO