Cortese Slams San Jose Fire Department for Lagging Response Times

In a press conference that probably wouldn’t have happened if he wasn’t running for mayor, county Supervisor Dave Cortese on Monday lambasted San Jose for cutting fire department staff to the point that paramedics can no longer respond to medical emergencies in time.

The Santa Clara County supervisor pointed to figures Metro reported more than a year ago: the city fails to meet a contractual agreement to respond to 90 percent of 9-1-1 calls within eight minutes and hasn’t met that goal since fall 2012. When San Jose Inside talked to then-Fire Chief William McDonald in January 2013, he wasn’t quite sure how many calls had met that standard in the previous year. By this time a year ago, it was a little more than 70 percent.

Missing the mark for this long means the city has breached its contract with the county. It’s not really worth it for the county to pay the city the $863,276 it owes from last year for a service that’s not exactly being rendered, Cortese noted. He called for the fire department to come up with a plan by next month detailing how it plans to meet the goals spelled out in its agreement with the county and find out if there’s enough staff and equipment to make it happen. In January, a SJFD report on emergency response performance to the Public Safety, Finance, and Strategic Support Committee was deferred to later this month.

If the fire department can’t respond to calls fast enough by summertime, Cortese says the county should charge a $152,050 fine, deducted from a future payment.

“When human lives are at stake, seconds do count, so the city’s failure to meet the standards that all other cities have met is unacceptable, period,” he said in a prepared statement. “The recent arson fires in San Jose reminded all of us that whether it be a fire or a medical emergency, we trust and rely on the police and fire department to have the staffing, equipment and systems to respond in time.”

This all comes in the same week that the fire department announced the appointment of two deputy fire chiefs, both men, apparently continuing the agency’s record of passing over women for promotion. A couple years ago, two female fire captains filed a lawsuit against McDonald alleging gender discrimination in reviewing applications for battalion chief positions. It’s been a longstanding issue, says Victor Garza of the La Raza Roundtable, one that he’s actively encouraged the department to fix.

Email tips to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. It’s simple math: 33 stations, 240+ sq. miles, over 1,000,000 residents, 75,000+ calls for service per year means not enough resources to respond to every call in under 8 minutes.  Surrounding cities such as Santa Clara and Santa Clara County have way more resources/square mile and far fewer calls for service.  If you want SJFD to meet it’s response goals SET BY THE CITY, then they’ll need more resources.

  2. Screw Cortese.

    This “sad-sack” of a politician is up to his usual “political pandering” using fear-tactics for his own political gain.

    Anyone with even 1/2 of an operational brain cell would understand; with budget cuts and the continuation of the alarming negative effects of Measure B; are the salient reasons concerning response times for our beleaguered, dutiful and honorable Fire Department.

    People who “voted” for Measure B did so without understanding that their vote could result in their death. Heart-attacks, strokes, busted main veins and arteries require immediate attention-slash the Fire Departments budget, well you better be “prayed-up.”

    Public Safety; Police and Fire need to be funded differently than reliance on the General FUND. Annuity based funding and or Parcel Tax reformulation are two methods I support and would explore.

    Thank-you ALL members of SJPD and SJ Fire.

    Cortese should be turned out of any further political office by the voters.

    David S. Wall

  3. Another option. With improvments in fire codes and sprinkler systems most of the calls are for paramedic services. Why are we using higher paid firefighters to do this work? Why do we need a fire engine every time someone calls for an ambulance? We need to start looking at different ways to provide this service.

      • How so? If 80% of your calls are paramedic why do you need to send a 4 person crew to a heart attack. Or let me put it another way. Cities cannot afford this kind of coverage anymore. It is in the Fire Depts long term interest to find a new model so the benefits of the professional fire fighters, whom I regard highly, are protected. Saying, we can’t do anything different is going to invite more of the pension reform measures that took SJ from being a first class city to a third world one. Both management and labor need to work together to solve this.

        • I’ve been on more calls requiring medical assistance from the FD than I can recall. I cannot recall any instance in which there was a significant medical issue and an extra firefighter standing around doing nothing while the rest of his crew rendered assistance. In every single instance I can recall each of those four firefighters has a particular task or set of tasks to perform. Reducing the number of firefighters will reduce the efficiency with which they render aid.

          Furthermore, while certain adjustments to the pension plans could be made – and very meaningful changes were offered by PD and FD a few years ago which would have saved about a $100 million annually – pension reform is really a red herring intended to obfuscate the real financial issues San Jose faces. What might those issues be? Profligate spending on ‘upgrade projects’, money pit projects like the Mexican Heritage Plaza, the Hayes Mansion, and the Golf Course over there off King Rd and, most importantly of all, the WAIT FOR IT… $3.85 billion in RDA debt the city had to shoulder when Jerry Brown shuttered the RDA programs. That’s right. $3.85 billion!!! with a B!!!! More than LA’s RDA debt, even though LA has four times as many residents and covers more than double the geographic area.

        • I agree with what you are saying but even if those projects were not funded, it is a drop in the bucket and plus RDA has to be paid—city has not choice here and it is all water under the bridge at this point. Quite honestly if we are into shoulda woulda coulda mode council should never had agreed to the 3.0 at 50 for public safety formula. But here we are so what what are we going to do going forward? There is no more magic money out there and we can’t gut all other services to pay for public safety.

        • We have had this discussion before and you are fully aware of the reasons for 4 vs 3. If you need a refresher see Mr_j’s response above.

          Additionally I thing it might be a great idea to simply dispatch 2 paramedics to medical calls… at first glance it seems reasonable.

          On further analysis: How will they get there? If there is no active fire calls working can the two take the truck or the engine or the ladder or what ever other fire apparatus is stationed at house?

          The solution might be the purchase of a fleet of utility type pick-up trucks configures to carry ALL the gear that might be required for the typical medical call – The same gear that is already carried on full sized fire trucks/engines… that takes 4 people to carry from where the vehicle is parked to the scene of the “heart attack.”

          That fleet will cost plenty as will replacement costs and added fuel costs.

          Do you take the inventory of medical gear off the apparatus they are already carried on? -or- by additional gear to put on the new smaller utility trucks? 

          Maybe instead of utility truck the City purchase a fleet if ambulances that can respond to medical calls and transport patients to hospital??? Again the costs of purchase and outfitting is in play.

          Who is fire supposed to dispatch to emergency calls when there is now smoke or flame showing?  An Engine? a Truck?  Firefighters or Paramedics? 

          Like… an auto accident where a person(s) is/are trapped and require they be extricated before medical care can be administered?  The paramedics don’t have the jaws-of-life and other tools needed to rescue so they have to call the fire-fighters on trucks/engines and with the training to do the extrication…

          See this is the problem with politicians and their staff – they have zero real life experience in fire fighting or emergency medical care or police work but they have all the 10 second sound-bite solutions that sound great but could end up being impractical cost a heck of a lot more than adequate competitively compensated staff!

        • lets NOT get it twisted , “Pensions did not take San Jose from a first rate city to a third world one” , This Mayor and Council did. Pensions account for less than 8% of San Jose’s total budget. I don’t know what you do for a living , but I would never presume to to tell you how to do your job more efficiently . SJFD crews are 4 , for safety of the crews and for increased productivity. no other agency in the county can or is doing what SJFD does with what it has. San Jose i bigger and runs more calls than all other agencies combined ! its not even close. 33 stations that cover around 250 sq. miles.

    • Everyone in the SJFD is a first responder . Rule #1 , you don’t split up a crew . Engines are staffed with 4 personal so that when there is an incendiary event , they can make entry immediately.(two in/ two out rule) . everybody wants help when they really need it , but never really seem to want to pay for it. dropping the staffing levels to 3 translates to at least a 25% decrease in productivity. if that is your loved one on distress do you really want to risk the decrease in in productivity?

  4. Good god Dave, about someone steps up for public safety.  Hope you do the same about crime and the police department.  No one on Chucks council of clowns seem to care about either.  YOU GOT MY VOTE!

  5. One aspect to this issue that is not being discussed is this: The shortages in PD staffing have a direct effect on Fire Department responses. In those situations wherein the scene of an incident involves the possibility of some kind of criminal act, or an act of violence (whether the act is ongoing or not) the FD is required *per City policy* to ‘stage’ and wait for PD units to arrive and declare the scene ‘secured for fire’ before FD can go ‘onscene’ and begin to render aid. This is NOT a bad policy, though. The fact is that FD units have neither the training nor equipment to deal with ongoing crimes or acts of violence and are, therefore, more at risk of being victimized themselves if they attempt to render aid in those situations without PD having first ensured their safety.

    The ONLY way by which the FD can reduce their response times is by fully staffing both FD *AND* PD, otherwise FD cannot arrive onscene and render aid in a timely manner if no PD units are available to ensure certain types of incident scenes are safe for FD to do their work.

  6. I was at the meeting. A speaker noted that the Grand Jury & SJ Auditor made recommendations that haven’t been implemented. These include using SUVs to respond to EMS calls and using 3-person engine companies like other depts do. Another speaker said 4-person crews were warranted, but didn’t explain why. He also blamed cutbacks.

    The Supes were clearly annoyed that City officials “declined to attend”.

    The Supes had SJFD budget and response time data at their desks. Simitian & Yeager said SJFD achieved targets when there was less staff and a smaller budget. I believe the quote was “no correlation”

    The BOS directed staff to prepare a plan to downgrade SJFD’s role by replacing it with Rural Metro.

    • Arhat,

      San Jose staffs 4 person engine companies for several reasons, one of which is safety and operational efficiency at structure fires.  When San Jose arrives at a fire with 4 people they are immediately able to attack the fire.  Cut them to 3 people and they then are forced to wait for the second due company, sometimes 5-10 minutes away.  Yes, surrounding departments have 3 person engines, however, they significantly higher concentrations of stations resulting in much faster response times.  San Jose has some stations that cover 10-15 square miles whereas the city of Santa Clara averages about 2 square miles per station.

      Further, a privately run ambulance company, such as Rural Metro, would be a poor replacement for SJFD.  Do you think they’d staff enough ambulances to meet response times?  Routinely, RM’s response times are 15+ minutes.  They’d have to staff 10-15 more ambulances in San Jose alone to make up for the difference.

  7. Reed & Company are 100% responsible for the situation that they unnecessarily created which has resulted in unacceptable staffing levels at both the fire and police departments.

    This is not rocket science – It is simply not possible to respond to emergencies or other calls for service in the time limits based on higher staffing levels.

    I have no doubt that Cortese knows and understands this. TO illustrate my point he appears to be blaming “THE CITY” and NOT the fire department when he says:

    “When human lives are at stake, seconds do count, so the city’s failure to meet the standards that all other cities have met is unacceptable, period,..”

    The CITY (Reed and Majority of City Council and Manager’s Office) created the situation that has brought staffing to unacceptably low levels and it is the CITY that is to blame – NOT the fire department, Not the Police Department, THE C-I-T-Y!

    The editorial spin of this piece is contemptible!

  8. San Jose’s elected officials can either properly fund it’s departments or have realistic goals for anemic budgeting… They are mutually exclusive.

  9. So let me get this straight…Arhat and the sanity guy want Rural-Metro to take a larger role in the EMS response model…is that correct?  Ok, the nearly bankrupt company that was fined for response times?  That one?  Who recently had a member SELLING EMT certifications to other employees without them actually doing any training? Ahh….
      Secondly, do you know how many personnel it takes to do CPR, Airway management, IV drugs and documentation on a single Patient?  No?  The answer is at least 4. Having been there and done that, there is a REASON the other agencies run 3 personnel.  Their coverage is 3 times that of San Jose.  You read that correctly sparky…3 times.  So unless you are willing to multiply the stations PRESENTLY existing by two, and increase staffing by 165 firefighters per day, I’d scrap that plan.
      Lastly, do you know how many STATIONS in San Jose were closed?  Only one, station 33 on Communications Hill. Do you know how many Engines were closed?  there were 5.  How about Truck Companies?  2.  So…strategically, the City and the command staff for SJFD closed the engines in 2 apparatus stations, so it would LOOK like everyone was home.  Not so. NOW we have large, behemoth trucks running medical calls in residential areas.  AND, I might add, in the fastest growing areas of the City!  Blossom Valley Corridor and 1st street/Montegue area.  Brilliant!

    • I simply reported my recollection of the meeting and did not take a position. And thanks to those that provided an explanation for 4 v 3 staffing. Makes sense.

      But I don’t understand why SJFD has any but the absolute minimum first responder duties as required by law.

      My understanding is that counties are legally responsible – not cities for EMS. AMR/Rural Metro – whatever are responsbile for hospital transport via a County contract in incorporated and unincorporated areas.

      Santa Clara County reimburses SJ a tiny fraction of the actual EMS response cost. In effect, SJ residents are subsidizing the County millions for EMS costs. 

      County Fire provides EMS in unincorporated areas paid via County taxes/fees. SJ residents pay the same County taxes/fees plus City taxes/fees to pay for SJFD EMS – that the County is legally required to provide.

      Why not let SJFD respond to fires and let the County handle EMS? It’s their legal duty and could save SJ residents millions per year. What am I missing?

      • Arhat,

        Good question, and, I believe there are several answers.  First, there are hundreds of counties that provide transport and primary first responder medical care to the citizens. Funny thing though, most, if not all of them also use the fire department to support the system.  Ambulances don’t make money unless they’re transporting, therefore they only staff the very minimum number of ambulances to meet demand.  At some points during every day supply is greater than demand, however, during most of the day demand is very near or greater than supply, resulting in increased response times.  Even if SJFD stopped responding to medical calls you’d still need the same number of fire stations for fire, rescue, hazmat services, etc. if those stations must exist, why not have them supplement the EMS system?  I completely agree though, SJ citizens are subsidizing the county in the current contract, receiving a paltry amount of payment for services rendered.

    • Like I said – Councilmembers and their staff (including CM Constant and Reed’s staffer Salcido) don’t know eff-all about what it actually takes to do the jobs they are committed making “efficient.”

      This isn’t seeking to “lower costs” this is an all out effort to do things “on-the-cheap.” 

      When “cheap” is the goal quality WILL suffer.

  10. Jennifer Wadsworth,

    The title to your article is extremely misleading. I know Dave Cortese is probably not SJI’s choice for the next mayor, but please stop with the Orwellian journalism.. You put up a title like that then in the first paragraph you wrote, “Supervisor Dave Cortese on Monday lambasted San Jose for cutting fire department staff.”

    Huh? So.. Enlighten me.. Did he slam SJFD or did he slam the City of SJ? Hmmm…

    In regard to the issue itself, as Officer Anonymous said earlier this is a dual pronged public safety problem. In addition to PD having an invisible hand in this matter, the issue is plain and simple for anyone to see – THERE AREN’T ENOUGH FUNDS GOING TO PUBLIC SAFETY IN SAN JOSE. General fund, a percentage of overall revenue.. whatever the pool of money is.. Not enough is going into keeping the residents of this city safe and we’re starting to see it. I really hate to give PLO credit for anything, but his idea of allocating a fixed percentage of the city’s overall revenue to public safety may just be the most intelligent solution to this issue.

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