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Santa Clara County Supes Vote to Withhold Funds From San Jose Fire Over 911 Response Times

The county will withhold more than $2.1 million it was to provide to San Jose.

The Santa Clara County Government Center chambers. The Santa Clara County Government Center chambers.  File photo.
The Santa Clara County Government Center chambers. The Santa Clara County Government Center chambers. File photo.
By Bay City News Service:    

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors Tuesday voted unanimously to withhold payments in a first responder agreement with the San Jose Fire Department for being late to emergency medical calls since October 2012.

 The resolution, brought by Supervisor Joe Simitian, places part of what the county pays annually to San Jose fire for 911 calls into a trust fund but could be paid back if the city made emergency calls on time three months in a row and provided the county with a plan to improve its service.

 The county will withhold more than $2.1 million it was to provide to San Jose as an incentive to respond to 911 calls within eight minutes at least 90 percent of the time each month but had failed to do from October 2012 to September 2013, county Emergency Management Services director Michael Petrie said.

 The total includes $1 million in payments the county made from October 2012 to March 2013 while San Jose fire had response rates of between 87.61 and 89.52 percent and another $1.1 million the county stopped paying from April to September when rates remained below 90 percent, county officials said.

 The fire department's response rate has since fallen to 83.7 percent over November and December, according to Petrie.

 Simitian said that San Jose fire had breached its contract for 14 consecutive months and while the county continued to make payments, 500-600 people in San Jose are getting a late arrival to emergencies each month.

 "What we're doing is making the matter worse," Simitian said.

 While the county has not recorded a specific death or injury due to the longer response times, Simitian said the potential is there.

 The Annals of Emergency Medicine concluded that every minute that passes for heart attack victims before defibrillation reduces their chances of survival by 7 to 10 percent, Simitian said.

 Fire departments in other cities that the county pays to maintain 911 first responder compliance, including Gilroy, Milpitas, Santa Clara, Morgan Hill, Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Santa Clara County fire, all have met the eight-minute requirement 95 percent or more of the time, Simitian said.

 Petrie told supervisors Tuesday that San Jose fire's reported response time rates before November may actually have been overstated by 1 percent to 3 percent due to long-term problems with its computer-aided dispatch system.

 In response, Simitian said, "we're even worst off than we thought we were."

 In a Jan. 4, 2013, letter to the San Jose City Council and included in the county's staff report Tuesday, the city's then-fire Chief William McDonald said that the department had not been measuring its response rates accurately as far back as 2009.

 McDonald, since replaced by acting chief Ruben Torres, also stated that the city's goal for fire and medical emergencies would be arriving on scene within eight minutes just 80 percent of the time.

 Simitian said that it was "hard to fathom the thinking there" when the city's incentive contract with the county required a 90 percent rate.

 Supervisor Ken Yeager criticized San Jose city officials for not showing up at Tuesday's meeting to answer questions from the board about emergency response rates.

 "I don't have any confidence that San Jose is going to be able to meet the minimum anytime soon," Yeager said.

 In response, San Jose city spokesman David Vossbrink said that the fire department had been suffering from cutbacks to personnel over the past several years and the county ought to take that into consideration.

 City fire spokesman Capt. Cleo Doss said that the department's staffing for emergencies went from about 205 personnel on duty per shift to 176 a shift.

"That's a significant cut in folks," Doss said. "You take that and the increase in population and calls -- none of that is going away."

 The national standard for firefighters is two per 1,000 people, and while other South Bay cities average around 1.6 firefighters per 1,000, San Jose has only 0.6 per 1,000 residents, Doss said.

 "We're still showing up to calls," Doss said. "We're not making 90 percent of the calls but we're in the 80s...We can only do our best with what we have."

 Doss said that city representatives are in close communication with the county's EMS agency about response times and met with them on Monday.

 Vossbrink said San Jose has only 33 stations to cover an area of 200 square miles, far bigger than smaller cities in the county that have higher tax bases and more resources to draw from.

 San Jose has fewer firefighters per capita than its neighboring cities but has a far higher volume of calls and its fire stations are spread out over a wider area meaning long drive times, Vossbrink said.

 It was "regrettable" that the county is looking at the issue from a political view and not "from a technical and financial perspective," Vossbrink said.

Copyright © 2014 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.
Kniqui Hackborn February 05, 2014 at 09:04 PM
If I get this right, the response time went down because the number of emergency response workers went down while the number of calls went up. Withholding funds under these circumstances is like cutting draught horses from the team and beating the remainders for not pulling the full loads just as fast as the full team.

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