SAN DIEGO — Fire departments around the nation are cutting jobs, closing firehouses and increasingly resorting to “rolling brownouts” in which they shut different fire companies on different days as the economic downturn forces many cities and towns to make deep cuts that are slowing their responses to fires and other emergencies.
Philadelphia began rolling brownouts this month, joining cities from Baltimore to Sacramento that now shut some units every day. San Jose, Calif., laid off 49 firefighters last month. And Lawrence, Mass., north of Boston, has laid off firefighters and shut down half of its six firehouses, forcing the city to rely on help from neighboring departments each time a fire goes to a second alarm.
Fire chiefs and union officials alike say it is the first time they have seen such deep cuts in so many parts of the country. “I’ve never seen it so widespread,” said Harold A. Schaitberger, the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
The risks of cutting fire service were driven home here last month when Bentley Do, a 2-year-old boy who was visiting relatives, somehow got his hands on a gum ball, put it in his mouth, started laughing and then began choking.
“It blocked the air hole,” said his uncle, Brian Do, who called 911 while other relatives frantically tried to dislodge the gum ball. “No air could flow in and out.”
It is only 600 steps from the front door of the neatly kept stucco home where the boy was staying to the nearest fire station, just down the block. But the station was empty that evening: Its engine was in another part of town, on a call in an area usually covered by an engine that had been taken out of service as part of a brownout plan.
The police came to the home within five minutes and began performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation, officials said. But it took nine-and-a-half minutes — almost twice the national goal of arriving within five minutes — for the fire engine, with a paramedic and more medical equipment, to get there. An ambulance came moments later and took Bentley to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
The San Diego Fire-Rescue chief, Javier Mainar, said it was impossible to say whether the delay contributed to Bentley’s death on July 20. But he said there was no doubt that the city’s brownouts, which take 13 percent of firefighters off the streets each day to save $11.5 million annually, led to the delay.