Rural Metro Could Lose County Ambulance Contract; Sunnyvale Responses Lag Most

County ambulance provider Rural Metro missed its monthly response times for emergencies in Sunnyvale all but once during a 17-month period ending November 2012, according to internal documents. This and other lapses last year have placed the company’s contract with Santa Clara County in jeopardy.

Since the county’s Emergency Medical Services system is considered a first responder for Sunnyvale, which has a combined fire and police department and no paramedic service, ambulances are required to arrive at emergency scenes in less than eight minutes, 90 percent of the time. The standard is 12 minutes for the rest of the county—not including Palo Alto, which has its own ambulance services but on occasions makes requests for help.

From July 2011 to November of last year, Rural Metro’s response times in Sunnyvale met the 90 percent threshold in just September 2011. The company failed to reach an 86-percent rate in 10 of the 17 months.

The company also has had trouble meeting its standard response times in other parts of the county. On Jan. 18, county EMS director Michael Petrie sent a letter to Rural Metro stating that the company had “materially breached” its contract. The letter was first reported by the San Jose Mercury News.

This letter was sent just a week after San Jose Inside sat down with Petrie. In that interview, Petrie said, “We’re really looking at every way possible to make sure Rural Metro is doing good business. We’ve brought [response times] up at three meetings. I expect to see those response times improve. Period.”

There was no indication at the time, however, that Rural Metro’s contract would hang in the balance. But in response to the county’s tough talk, the ambulance company, based out of Scottsdale, Ariz., has taken some steps to solve the problem.

“Rural Metro has presented a plan of correction to us,” Petrie said on Thursday. “Their response times have met our standard in all five zones for emergency and non-emergency zones in January, February and March, and I will know April next week.”

In 2011, just two weeks into its contract with the county, Rural Metro met its response times to the northwest part of the county (including Sunnyvale) just 83 percent of the time. Company officials chalked the delays up to a transition period, and times in all five zones improved. But the company’s response times in parts of San Jose fell slightly below 90 percent twice in two months last year.

According to Petrie, there were five late Rural Metro responses in December 2012 to Zone 4, which covers southeast San Jose to Morgan Hill, and seven late responses in October 2012 to Zone 1, an area that includes Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Mountain View and Palo Alto. Since the two 2012 infractions were within six months of each other, they triggered a breach of contract with the county.

In less than two years, Rural Metro has reportedly racked up about $4.7 million in fines. With just one more response time violation, Rural Metro’s contract could be stripped.

“We expect those are standards they’re going to meet,” Petrie said.

Rural Metro spokesman Michael Simonsen called the response time issues “old news” in the Mercury News report, but he also noted that the company takes them seriously.

American Medical Response (AMR), which lost its contract with the county to Rural Metro in 2011, chimed in that it never fell below the 90 percent requirement in the county in 10 years. Petrie said that despite the breach of contract, a change in the county’s tracking of EMS services shows that Rural Metro is providing better services than AMR did in the past—the bar is just held higher.

So far, the slow response times have reportedly not affected patients, but Milpitas firefighters have noted sometimes waiting longer for ambulances at emergency scenes.

To make matters worse, Rural Metro’s employee union—AFSCME—voted to allow employees to call a strike if necessary. The county is not involved in labor negotiations between Rural Metro and its employees, but Petrie said a backup plan is in place if a strike does occur. He would not provide specifics.

“That would not be appropriate and would allow the plan to be undermined,” he said. “The key thing is we believe there will be a resolution between Rural Metro and their union in collective bargaining.”

Josh Koehn contributed to this report.

3 Comments

  1. Queuing theory would suggest that they’re likely to be understaffed.  If you want fast response, you have to have underutilized resources.  If you want more fully utilized resources, you will have longer average wait times.

    I’m sure it’s more complicated in real life, but that’s the quick analysis.

    • Your analysis makes perfect sense in the real world to everyone but folks like Mayor Reed, the City Council, Metro Group, the Merc and the many mindless sheep who believe them…

      Police response times are up even after they have amended their internal policies to stop responding to a multitude of time consuming/non-criminal matters low level quality of life matters? (anonymous complaints of loud music, non verified alarms, car clouts and non injury auto accidents…) after Reed & Company cause PD staffing to decrease by nearly 500 bodies?

      Well of course it can’t be the staffing so they claim the officers are lazy and over compensated and seek to implement pay based on “merit” as determined by annual evals not to mention release of anyone deemed to be underperforming…

      Fire Response times are way up? Again,  forget any cuts to staffing and blame fire fighters for skewing easily verifiable and difficult to manipulate computer aided dispatch records… then have Mr. Efficiency Engineer Oliverio recycle the ridiculous notion that to solve the problem there should be 3 fire fighters on a rig instead of 4…

      In both cases City leaders would rather deceive everyone with the illusion that there are more police and fire fighters protecting life and property in San Jose than there really are… That is why there are police cars with one officer in them and one reason why they would rather have 3 fire fighters on a truck they might be able to put more 3 person truck on the street and open closed.unstaffed fire houses but the reality is there are still not enough fire fighters to make a difference…

      It’s not all that complicated – people would rather believe the contrived BS than simple truths.

  2. Why is it not a surprise that the company that courted Gluttonous George Shirakawa so heavily and who wink, wink had him go down with his Shifty now fired chief of staff Eddie Garcia to San Diego with the side trips to Mexico in the overpriced and illegally charged jaunts is somehow coming up short after George shoved them down the throats of the Supes and the county? 

    The fleecing and shameful influence of Shirakawa continues.  Don’t forget who his good “friend” is people, Cindy Chavez is cut from the same cloth.  SMARTEN UP SAN JOSE!  These costly mismanaged decisions have got to end!