San Jose Fire Department emergency response times have been calculated based upon incomplete and inaccurate data. That must be remedied. In San Jose, each fire company is assigned a geographical area as their “first due” assignment. This means that if an emergency call is received and the first-due fire company is available, then that company will be dispatched to respond and the response time calculated appropriately. In thousands of instances, over the past several years, fire companies responded outside of their first-due geographical area and these calls were not included in calculating emergency response times. Responding to emergency calls outside of a fire company’s first due area is a regular occurrence in San Jose, and it increases response times—increasing the risk to the public and to firefighters.
This means that critical staffing and budget decisions were made based upon data that would remain static, even if only a single station remained open citywide. At last year’s community budget hearings, city administrators reported that the elimination of five fire companies, implementation of “dynamic-deployment,” brownouts and company staffing reductions all had no impact on response-time performance. We knew then and certainly know now that this was untrue. What’s the significance? It’s about politicizing life and death.
On Valentines Day in 2012, a press conference was held at City Hall to formally announce the implementation of the PulsePoint mobile application, in partnership with El Camino Hospital and the San Jose Fire Department. This app was designed to notify the nearest skilled lifesaver in the event someone nearby is experiencing sudden cardiac arrest. (Visit PulsePoint for more information.)
In late February 2012, PulsePoint went live and many smartphone-carrying San Jose Fire Fighters downloaded the app. The typical reaction to the app was a wordless headshake. Firefighters recognized immediately that after a modest investment of time, money and a few days of interfacing with the SJFD Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system to capture necessary data, PulsePoint had produced a service that is years ahead of the alert system that we were using in the fire stations every day. In many instances, PulsePoint was alerting fire fighters to emergencies well before our dispatch system.
In the Chuck Reed era, inaccurate information, excuses and spin are king. You’ll recall that when professional fire fighters and police officers cautioned of increased emergency response times and rising crime rates, the Mayor’s spin deflected the caution and characterized it as nothing more than union scare tactics.
Emergency response times matter. That’s why it’s a key performance measurement for fire and EMS services, and why the PulsePoint app was created. Deployment of resources is always a question of balance. Unfortunately, that balance has been tipped away from protecting the public in San Jose. San Jose’s goal of an 8-minute response to emergencies, set by the City Council, is already more than two minutes slower than the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard of six minutes. And staffing levels are at the bottom of the 30 largest U.S. cities; despite the rhetoric, at a comparatively low per capita cost for services.
Your fire department responds to genuine emergencies of all types with real hazards and real victims. We arrive with skills that can be the difference between life and death, but only if we are on time. We know that a modest investment can yield the information that we need to make sound public safety policy decisions—critical information that the public should demand.
Politics in San Jose are driving up crime and driving up fire department response times. San Jose residents deserve better than what they are getting.
Robert Sapien is president of the San Jose Firefighters union, IAFF-Local 230.