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.