Number of Missing Fire Response Time Reports ‘Significantly Higher’ than Expected

The San Jose Fire Department has a pretty good idea how long it takes firefighters to get to emergencies. Well, some emergencies.

SJFD officials told San Jose Inside this week that thousands of emergency calls in recent years were mistakenly left out when calculating response times. In the 2011-12 fiscal year, there were 52,400 reported calls for emergency medical or fire services, according to current department statistics. But SJFD officials now acknowledge underreporting the numbers, and the total will be “significantly higher.”

A disconcerting memo released last week by Fire Chief William McDonald revealed, with few details, a glaring glitch in the way SJFD has calculated response times to emergency calls. Each fire company in San Jose has an assigned priority zone, and McDonald’s memo states that any time a company responded to an emergency in its priority zone, response times were accurately measured.

However, McDonald’s memo admits that any time a company responded to an emergency outside of its priority zone—which increasingly occurred as resources were stretched thin due to layoffs and furloughs—these calls were not included in response times. A new Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system implemented in 2008-09 could be to blame, McDonald said. Regardless, the response times are unknown and likely to be slower.

“We’ll make eight minutes a lower percentage of the time than what we thought we were making,” McDonald said in a phone interview. “Until I’m comfortable that I know what we’re reporting in the future, I won’t guess.”

While the fire chief couldn’t pinpoint just how far measurements are off the mark, current numbers show that firefighters arrive at emergency scenes within the expected time just 72 percent of the time. The department is supposed to arrive on scene within eight minutes of a call, while the nationally recognized standard is six minutes.

News of the inaccurate numbers did not come as a shock to Robert Sapien, president of the SJFD firefighters union, Local 230.

“The peak of frustration for me was last year in May, when the city was out doing its community budget hearings,” Sapien said. “They were out telling the community that, despite staff reductions to police and fire departments, there was no impact to achieving their goals. I knew that was impossible. So, when you look at the way they were reporting the data, it makes sense now that they would say something like that.”

Like many city services in recent years, SJFD has seen significant cutbacks in staffing. In the late summer of 2010, the department laid off 49 employees, and eliminated four engine companies and one truck company. Since that time, some resources have returned, thanks to two federal grants. Five two-person squads have been added, and 33 new recruits began training in October of last year. But brownouts of certain companies continue.

While the chief insists that his department continues to provide excellent service, there is a disconcerting caveat in his reassurances: No one within the department or the city administration is exactly sure just how big a problem it has on its hands.

“While I’m telling you that there’s been a data error, I’m not telling you the service has diminished,” McDonald said. “I do think that it’s important to know exactly how our performance is, because I believe—and it’s been my experience—the faster we get the calls, the better the outcome.”

Sapien countered that the city does not track patient outcome, preventing a meaningful analysis of whether they survive and in what condition.

“That’s the problem with our industry,” he said. “Nobody measures success, and no one wants to talk about failure. We know that brain death occurs within four to six minutes of cardiac arrest. We know the longer a structure fire is burning, the greater damage. For anybody to say you can be slow and not have adverse outcomes, that statement is outrageous to me.”

Some wonder if the city’s depleted fire department can, or should, continue to handle first-responder duties for fire as well as medical emergency calls.

“It’s an important indicator that we need to have right,” David Vossbrink, the city’s communication’s director, said of the response times, “but it also needs to be viewed in the context that there are other indicators about peoples’ lives saved.”

“That’s why you need good data,” Vossbrink said, “to start asking these questions.”

McDonald compared San Jose to Nashville, which he noted has a population of about 600,000 people and 1,139 firefighters. San Jose has more than 970,000 residents yet 678 firefighters, he added.

“We are the lowest staffed major city fire department in the country,” McDonald said. “Of the top 25 population cities, we have the lowest per capita firefighters and the lowest actual number.”

The fire chief expects to deliver a full report on the incorrect calculations, and possible solutions to improve response times at the Public Safety, Finance, and Strategic Support Committee meeting on Jan. 17.

Josh Koehn is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to josh@metronews.com or follow him on Twitter at @Josh_Koehn.

8 Comments

  1. JK,
    Thank you for shining the lights on this city’s dark little secrets.
    Although Vossbrink is under orders to spew his disinformation, engaged voting citizens recognize his lies.

  2. Funny how this post is not about how the firefighter’s “refused” to take pay cuts resulting in cuts to staffing like the last one that Josh posted concerning fire department response times.  Sounds like he actually got more of the facts this time.

    The truth is, as a department, we are understaffed for a city of our size.  We have stations, single stations that run more calls in a year than the Mountain View Fire Department.  Cuts to our staffing have very much hurt our response times.  You can’t have your cake and eat it too.  The city and it’s residents want a fire department that responds to their calls in a timely manner, they just don’t want to pay for it.

    The problem is not going to get better anytime soon, either.  Facing the prospect of devastating pay cuts from the effects of Measure B will only diminish the staffing.  Who will want to stay or come work at the San Jose Fire Department when the pay is 60% of what could be earned elsewhere?  We have a great department, but it’s being dismantled by the mayor and city council.

  3. It should be of great concern to the citizens of and visitors to San Jose, that the fire department is unable to meet both national and local response time standards. In their arrogance, the Mayor and City Council approved response time standards for the San Jose Fire Department, which are FAR inferior to established and
    proven industry standards for both fire and medical emergencies. Believe me, when your child, spouse, parent or other family member is not breathing or is trapped inside of a burning house, EVERY second counts! We all go to sleep at night with a false sense of security, knowing that the fire department is just seconds away in the event of an emergency and anyway, it will never happen to me,
    It’s always “the other guy” who has a heart attack or whose house catches on fire in the middle of the night. Tell that to the 60,000 “other guys” who called the SJFD for help last year.

    The Mayor hoodwinked the voters with Measures B, V and W. You see, he tried and successfully convinced 12% of the voters that firefighters should be valued just like the folks who “make widgets”. The fact is that the fire department is an insurance policy of sorts. You don’t know when you’ll need them but when you do, there’s no substitute.
    I fear that ifs Measure B is implemented, that there will be a mass exodus of firefighters this June/July. Firefighters have families to support to and many will leave to preserve their retirement or to go to another department, as SJFD has become one of the lowest paid departments in this entire part of the state.
    You think that response times are bad now, just wait a few
    Months. Your Mayor and City Council LIED to you fellow citizens, when they told you that
    The passage of these Measures would prevent staffing cuts.
    SLEEP SOUNDLY tonight San Jose.

  4. I dont think the residents of San Jose realize how SJFD and SJPD were seen by the rest of the country . We were ” IT” the best trained ,the most progressive , the most forward thinking, the best run , all the while being among the busiest in the country. NOBODY is clamoring to come and work here. we are a second or third thought at best(until they can get the job where they want)Nobody is looking up to San Jose any longer.  we are like that High school kid full of promise and then he gets hit by a speeding car , thru no fault of his own , He is no longer “the Poster child” for success. He is now looked at with pity and sorrow.
    This dishonest and arrogant Mayor would have you believe that everything is fine, truth is that we are in a downward spiral. the residents are suffering and will continue to suffer increasingly. How is it that the city of Los Angeles can Hire almost 800 new officers( almost the size of our entire force) in the last few years and their crime rate is actually going down!

  5. We used to have a great department, that I took pride in belonging to. While the quality of the individuals that make up SJFD are still high, the overall quality of the dept has plummeted. The city and citizens have decided they want a cut rate organization, and that’s exactly what they have. Anyone who has less than 20 years invested with SJFD should be looking elsewhere for employment. Anyone with over 20, should be looking at retirement.

  6. Very true. I left another Bay Area department to come to SJFD, not because of the pay, but because SJFD used to be the department other departments aspired to be like. What most people outside the fire service don’t realize is that the intangible ingredient in an organization is morale, which manifests itself in very real and tangible ways, quality of service, ability to attract the best and the most motivated. Look at the tech industry, how companies treat their employees has a very real effect on the success of the company. We used to be google, now we are closer to radio shack.

  7. “Some wonder if the city’s depleted fire department can, or should, continue to handle first-responder duties for fire as well as medical emergency calls”.

      Well, to blow some holes in that theory, the “Private Ambulance Companies” who supplement the SJFD for Patient transport have an even MORE dismal record of response time and coverage

    “It’s an important indicator that we need to have right,” David Vossbrink, the city’s communication’s director, said of the response times, “but it also needs to be viewed in the context that there are other indicators about peoples’ lives saved.”

      Important indicators?  Its the reason the Fire Department exists!  The City Council, the Mayor and the City Manager have only one job: protect and preserve the lives, property and interests of the Citizens of San Jose. The Fire and Police Departments are the main tools to accomplish this task. A fine balance exists between a healthy core of City Services, and a good business atmosphere.  When the balance is tilted toward business and private interests….this is the result. The Mayor, City Council and Manager have failed at this job miserably through arrogance, unjust persecution of the very people sworn to protect the citizenry, and ignorance of the scope of the problem.

    • Agreed.  There is a housing complex in the area with lots of medical calls.  SJFD is always quickly first on the scene while the private ambulance can be heard arriving many minutes later (much too late if it were the only responder). 

      Our leaders in city hall are sounding like they want out of providing police and fire services to residents so they can redirect the budget to the council’s pet projects.