Fire Department emergency response times at issue in light of report, recent events 

click to enlarge A recent report from The City's Budget and Legislative Analyst's Office found that the Fire Department has a shortage of ambulances and too few resources going to EMS response despite it making up most of all calls. - MIKE KOOZMIN/ S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • MIKE KOOZMIN/ S.F. EXAMINER file photo
  • A recent report from The City's Budget and Legislative Analyst's Office found that the Fire Department has a shortage of ambulances and too few resources going to EMS response despite it making up most of all calls.

When a 60-year-old man was having trouble breathing on the afternoon of June 4, a call was made to 911 from San Francisco's TPC Harding Park golf course.

The Fire Department's ambulance, which was dispatched from the other side of The City in the Bayview, was eventually able to take the man to the hospital. But it didn't arrive on scene for nearly a half-hour, according to details from the call obtained by The San Francisco Examiner.

Just last week, when a 2-year-old boy died after a statue fell on him at Fisherman's Wharf, it took the ambulance dispatched to the scene 13 minutes to arrive -- exceeding the department's 10-minute average response time goal -- from a mere 4-mile distance.

Such stories, coupled with a recent city report that takes the Fire Department to task, have refocused public attention on The City's emergency medical response, which accounts for more than 75 percent of department calls.

The report from The City's Budget and Legislative Analyst's Office notes that the department has a shortage of ambulances, understaffed emergency medical units and too few resources going to EMS response even though it makes up most of all calls.

While the department admits it sometimes can't meet its response time goals, officials contend that many of the report's issues are out of their hands. Call volume, for instance, has increased by 27 percent in the past five years, as budgets shrank and state meddling interfered with operations which mandate that the department must respond to 80 percent of The City's EMS calls, officials say.

"At times the system is strained and at times we don't meet the goals that we set," said fire Lt. Mindy Talmadge.

The department, she said, can only ask the mayor for essential resources. "The mayor's got an entire city budget to balance, so we are taking what we can get."

Still, department personnel are frustrated by the lack of resources.

"We need more personnel to adequately meet the rising call volume ... we should have about 25 to 26 ambulances at the peak time of the day on the streets and we don't have that," said Jared Cooper, president of the Fire Fighter Paramedic Association, a roughly 60-member group.

"We are routinely exceeding the 10-minute mark," he said.

The department's average response time in March for ambulances was nearly 12 minutes.

Aside from pointing out that the department has too few medical response managers and wastes time having EMS teams stock their own ambulances, the report critiques the department for failing to purchase new ambulances despite The City giving it the funds to do so.

"As a result, the SFFD takes the existing aging ambulances out of service regularly for repairs, reducing the number of units available to respond to calls," noted the report.

The department said the delays were due mostly to chassis redesigns for 14 new rigs so they'd hold up longer on city streets.

In addition, the report chastised the department for not back-filling for sick leave, which impacted staffing levels for ambulance crews.

The issue arose, says the department, from a lack of staff members as well as the particular nature of how it staffs its ambulances.

Another issue impacting service, according to officials, is vehicle location devices, which have been installed on ambulances and some of the fleet, but not on the private ambulances, leaving dispatch with a blind spot.

The department says it is not responsible for how dispatch operates or what kind of equipment is installed on private ambulances.

Call statistics

76.9 percent: Emergency medical calls, out of total calls to SFFD

23.1 percent: Fire suppression calls, out of total calls

21.7 percent: Increase in medical calls from 2007 to 2013

5.5 percent: Increase in fire suppression calls from 2007 to 2013

Source: Budget and Legislative Analyst's Office

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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