Chief sparked debate on costs of upgrades
By Mark Arner
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER CORONADO – A two-page letter from National City's fire chief is still reverberating in Coronado nearly a year later.
Chief Roderick Juniel wrote last April that his South Bay department was having trouble providing a ladder truck to help Coronado fight its frequent fires. Juniel recommended that his neighbors get one of their own.
In response, Coronado Fire Chief Kim Raddatz went to work reviewing his department's vehicles, staffing and number of fire calls. Statistics from five fire departments in South Bay and East County show Coronado has had more fires than its similarly sized neighbors since 2005, and that it has invested more money per capita on firefighters and equipment.
In January, nine months after Juniel wrote his letter, the Coronado City Council agreed to spend nearly $1 million to buy more equipment and hire more firefighters. A new truck – a Quint, which can carry water and holds a 100-foot ladder – will take about a year to arrive. Raddatz and his staff still need to agree on its exact size and specifications.
But the debate over fire protection, spurred by Juniel's letter, has continued at City Hall. Two council members wanted the city to spend more on fire protection, but were unable to sway the three-member majority when it came time to decide what to buy at the Jan. 16 council meeting.
Councilwoman Carrie Downey is particularly alarmed that Coronado has more than 1,000 buildings whose roofs can't be reached with the fire department's tallest portable ladders, which are 24 feet high. Until the Quint arrives next year, Coronado will have to rely on ladder trucks from other cities to effectively fight fires in buildings with three or more stories.
“My fear is what if we have a fire in a taller building, and San Diego and National City both need their ladder trucks?” Downey said in a recent interview. “How would we provide the equipment needed to put a large fire out?”
When Juniel wrote that cash-strapped National City was having a tough time providing mutual aid to Coronado, he suggested the fire department establish a ladder truck company in addition to its two engines and one ambulance. That would make the city more self-sufficient, he said, when dealing with its soaring daytime population and a coverage area of about 9 square miles.
The total cost would be about $1.6 million: $1.4 million to buy a new ladder truck and replace an aging engine, plus $1.2 million to hire nine more firefighters to staff the truck. Juniel, a former Denver fire chief with several decades of experience, also urged both cities to jointly plan equipment purchases.
The letter was released to the public by the Coronado city clerk after litigation was threatened a few days before the Jan. 16 meeting.
Raddatz said the more costly plan was “not sustainable . . . with existing revenue sources.” Councilman Casey Tanaka was in favor of spending more on fire protection, and noted a key problem raised by Juniel: Vehicles from other cities take too long to reach Coronado fires. Tanaka said the council should decide if public safety was its top priority. “Fires double with a certain frequency,” Tanaka said. “The chief from National City mentioned that the jump from four minutes to eight is a significant one.”
Tanaka and Downey insisted that Coronado had the money. The city has an annual budget of $34.5 million with nearly $37 million in cash reserves. “We can't throw out the excuse that we can't afford it,” Tanaka said.