San Antonio Fire Department

  • Why a $7.3 million stimulus project is a year behind schedule in San Antonio

    Red tape stalls stimulus project in San Antonio by John Tedesco

    We’ve been checking how stimulus funds are being spent in Bexar County, and one of the interesting things we’ve learned is how money for some projects still hasn’t been spent, more than a year after the Recovery Act became law.

    Last month I met Peter Zanoni, assistant city manager for the city of San Antonio who’s in charge of the city’s stimulus projects. He and his staff said the stimulus is great for San Antonio but they were also open about some of the difficulties they faced. At one point, Zanoni showed me a chart detailing how the city had been awarded $118 million in stimulus money. But as of April, the city had only spent about a tenth of that — $12 million.

    “So you’re probably saying, ‘Jeez, what are you guys doing? That’s pretty weak,’” Zanoni quipped.

    The problem is that officials want to spend the money quickly, but they also want to make sure it’s spent appropriately. There’s a ton of federal oversight — audits, reviews, paperwork — that the city must deal with.

    I ended up focusing on an example of a project that was mired in red tape. The city had plans for two fire stations that were “shovel ready” and had received $7.3 million in stimulus grants. The money came from FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency. I got a tip that the project was taking forever and the contractor on the job, Bartlett Cocke, even had to lay off a few employees.

    Not quite what the stimulus program was supposed to be accomplishing.

    The tip turned out to be true — I interviewed Kirk Kistner at Bartlett Cocke who confirmed it. I also asked for any e-mails from the city that discussed the delays with the fire stations and other stimulus projects. It’s important in these kinds of stories to track down pertinent documents. Tad Wille, budget program analysis manager for the city who somehow keeps track of all the paperwork tied to stimulus projects, was very helpful in compiling a pile of e-mails discussing the delays.

    In one message, a deputy fire chief updated his bosses about the federal regulations that were slowing down the project: “FEMA stated to me that ‘shovel ready’ was not a term in their lexicon,” the chief wrote. The e-mails helped lay out the timeline of events and revealed concerns expressed privately by city officials.

    Red tape stalls stimulus project in San Antonio

    One thing I wanted to know is whether other fire departments were experiencing similar delays with these fire station grants. Federal data allowed us to answer that question.

    Recipients of stimulus dollars file spending reports, and that data is posted online at, the official website of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. In the data, each type of grant is identified by a specific code. So you can filter the data by that code to find who has received similar grants.

    That’s what I did for the fire station grants. It allowed me to write the following graphs in my story about the fire stations:

    According to the most recent spending reports posted online by the Recovery Board, 118 fire departments in the United States had been awarded nearly $200 million in grant money to build new stations. But four of five recipients reported the projects have yet to start, and few jobs have been created.

    The reasons for the delays aren’t always FEMA’s fault. In the town of Edgewater, Fla., the station still is being designed, so a detailed environmental assessment required by FEMA didn’t interfere with construction, Fire Captain Jill Danigel said.

    “That process did take us many, many months,” Danigel said. “If we were shovel ready, that would have held us up.”

    In Valley Hill, N.C., Fire Chief Tim Garren said he’s in the “same boat” as the San Antonio Fire Department.

    “We’re as shovel ready as can be,” said Garren, whose department received a $640,000 grant in September 2009 to build a new station. Garren still is waiting for the environmental assessment at the site to be approved.

    “I don’t want to fuss because it’s going to be free money, and it’s greatly needed,” Garren said. “But it’s still frustrating.”

    We plan to run more stories about local stimulus projects and their impact in Bexar County. I’ve been bookmarking interesting websites about the stimulus and sharing them online through Diigo, feel free to check them out and offer recommendations or tips.

  • Mapping fire response times in San Antonio’s outer neighborhoods

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    I made a quick Google map of the data we analyzed for this story about fire response times in San Antonio. Many residents of the exclusive Dominion, home of the San Antonio Spurs’ David Robinson and other celebrities, aren’t happy about a slow response to a recent fire that destroyed a $1 million home.

    fire response times in san antonioI plugged in the city’s data for incidents that occurred between 2000 and 2006 in the area in and around the Dominion. The red dots show incidents in which firefighters exceeded a national response standard of five minutes. The clock starts when they’re dispatched to the emergency, and it ends when the first unit arrives at the scene.

    Clearly, firefighters aren’t making many fires in time. This was a problem we found in many outlying neighborhoods, where fire stations are more spread out, and a labyrinth of winding, cul-de-sac streets slow down firefighters.

    What’s also interesting about this map is how few fires strike the Dominion, which raises questions about where the Fire Department should marshal its assets and best protect its residents.

    Here’s a map of Sunrise, a neighborhood on the East Side of San Antonio that suffered the same delays:

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  • Using public data to uncover hidden stories

    It took firefighters more than 11 minutes yesterday to reach a raging fire that destroyed a $1 million home on the outskirts of San Antonio. The national firefighting standard is a five-minute response time.

    fire2Express-News readers know this is not a new problem in San Antonio.

    After retired state Sen. Frank Madla and members of his family died in a fire in November 2006, the tragedy raised an obvious question: Are San Antonio firefighters doing a good job arriving to fires quickly and keeping residents safe? Express-News Projects Editor David Sheppard asked us to find out.

    At this point, what would you do to get the story? Maybe call the Fire Department and ask them for quotes and statistics? Talk to homeowners to get anecdotal evidence?

    In the old days, those were the methods journalists were stuck with. We wouldn’t be able to write anything beyond a superficial story. We wouldn’t truly understand the scope of the problem.

    The rise of the computer age has helped reporters take the initiative to do their own analysis of public records. Journalists are analyzing government data to come up with their own findings and discoveries. It takes time and patience. But these new reporting techniques are uncovering compelling stories that are a public service and can’t be found anywhere else.

    For the fire story, we asked the city for a copy of its entire database of incidents documenting responses to structure fires in San Antonio. The database showed the location of each fire and how long it took firefighters to arrive.

    With the help of Express-News Database Researcher Kelly Guckian, we plugged the incidents and response times into a citywide map. Here’s part of the story I wrote with Guckian and Reporter Karisa King:

    City records show the Fire Department’s mission of protecting lives and property is clashing with San Antonio’s appetite for new land.

    In the past six years, firefighters rushed to inner-city blazes far more quickly than to fires in popular outlying areas that attract thousands of new homeowners.

    Delays on the city’s edges plague rich and poor alike, from the exclusive enclave of the Dominion to low-income neighborhoods like Sunrise, a struggling community on the far East Side.

    San Antonio annexed many of these neighborhoods despite protests by residents, who complained the city would fail to provide swift fire protection.

    The city’s own records reveal that most of the time, those fears came true.

    dominionfire2The analysis of the data took the story in whole new directions. When we sat down with fire officials to interview them, we didn’t have to start out by asking, Is there a problem with response times in San Antonio?

    We already knew there was a problem. We showed them copies of our maps, told them what we found out from their database, and asked them, Why are firefighters taking so long to reach fires on the outskirts of the city? It changed the entire dynamic of the interview.

    Many newspaper critics complain that reporters don’t simply “report the facts.” Maybe these critics would have a problem with journalists taking the initiative to conduct their own analysis of public data.

    I would counter that our job is to tell readers what’s really going on. And by making sense of public data and asking our own questions, we are finding stories that help readers make sense of a complicated world.

    At a time when newspapers are struggling, these kinds of public-service stories might save them.