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.