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San Diego Emergency Response Times Fall Short Of Goal

July 30, 2013 1:26 p.m.

Guests

Liam Dillon, VOSD Reporter

Cherise Lomeli, Encanto Resident

Brian Fennessy, Assistant Fire Chief, San Diego Fire Rescue Department

Related Story: San Diego Emergency Response Times Fall Short Of Goal

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: A focus on emergency response times in the staff San Diego. Recently Voice of San Diego published an investigative report about the amount of time it takes first responders to arrive at an emergency after a 911 call is placed. Based on a report and statistics, San Diego first responders are not getting to scenes fast enough, especially in some of San Diego's poorest neighbors. Liam Dillon is eye reporter with Voice of San Diego, welcome.

DILLON: Thanks.

CAVANAUGH: And Cherise Lomeli is on the line with us, a 28-year-old Encanto resident. Welcome to the program.

LOMELI: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And with us also is San Diego assistant fire chief Fennessy.

FENNESSY: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: Liam, you use a tragic event to anchor your story about response times. Tell us about the shooting last year.

DILLON: Sure. It was a triple shooting in late June of 2012 in the City Heights neighborhood, very close to Home Avenue, and there was a -- a gunman ran up to three people, and fired. First responders, a number of first responders were called, some arrived at the front of the scene where the two gentlemen had been shot within the city's response time goal, but it took a long time for there to be enough response that Mr. McCoy needed in the back of the alley. They didn't know that he was there. And it just so happens, and he later passed away, bled to death, and it just so happens that this incident took place less than a half mile from when the -- where the city has admitted its top priority new fire station should be. So had there been a fire station there, fireplace crews that were in the station at the time, someone would have gotten to McCoy sooner than they did.

CAVANAUGH: How long did it actually take for responders to treat McCoy?

DILLON: There wasn't enough people there until after 12 minutes after the fire department received notification of the call. It was three minutes longer that the police notified that there was an issue. So we're talking around 15 minutes.

CAVANAUGH: Chief, how typical is something like that that it might take 15 minutes for San Diego rescue to treat someone who's placed a 911 call?

FENNESSY: Well, specific to this incident, it probably wouldn't be uncommon. From what I understand in talking with the police department, and we reviewed this call extensively, is it was a very chaotic scene. You're talking about multiple shooting, family members close by, information coming in somewhat slowly, our units are held back until the scene is declared safe. And so this was probably not a typical response. But generally, we're about 69% of the time. And our objective is 90%. So we're falling well short. And without the additional resources, it's going to be very difficult if not impossible for us to get to that number.

CAVANAUGH: I'll get into that more. I want to ask you, Liam, what does response time mean? When does the clock start?

DILLON: That's a complicated question. Most people think well, it's the second I call 911 to when someone actually treats me, but that's not true. What it means is that the moment the fire department receives notification of the call, which is after it's transferred from the police department. And the clock stops when someone arrives at the scene. If you live in a large apartment complex, there may be a delay in someone actually getting to you even though they may have arrived on scene a minute or two sooner. So there's a specific time that's used, and that's just so the department can grade it, but it doesn't mean what people think of when they think of response time.

CAVANAUGH: When you talk about a goal of response time, what is the optimum response time that is the goal for your department?

FENNESSY: I applaud Liam for his understanding of what a response time is. He's definitely done the work, and he explained it very well. Our goal is to -- from the time of call pickup at our dispatch center to the call -- or to the time of arrival of our first unit, we're looking at 7.5 minutes.

CAVANAUGH: And that's increased hasn't it?

FENNESSY: It has. NFPA, 17 senior editor, which is Fay national guideline, it's not a mandate, identified that performance goal nationally, but it's guidance. That could be possible if we lived in a grid-like system. San Diego is guided into canyons, and a number of ridge lines, there are very few department who is meet that goal. So by hiring City Gate, they took into consideration station spacing, the canyon areas, the bays, and determined what was something that was achievable. And that's where we got the increase from 6 minutes to seven minutes and 30 seconds.

CAVANAUGH: Do you expect seven minutes and 30 seconds to remain your goal even if you are provided more resources down the line?

FENNESSY: We do. By the -- the results of the report identified 19 service area gaps. Of those 19, taking care of 10 would accomplish most of what needs to be done to get us to that percentile. Short of having those stations, units, and personnel, there is not going to be much beyond 70%.

CAVANAUGH: Liam, break down your analysis of the response times. What do they show? We heard from the chief they're only reaching their goal 69%. The time. But how does that actually map up? I believe one of the statistics in your column in your report is that means two times an hour, San Diego responders don't make that goal when they go on emergency calls.

DILLON: It's two times an hour for the highest priority of the emergencies. That's your very high level, heart attack arrest calls, choking, shooting, stabbing, that would be an average of two times an hour every single day for the 21-month period that we looked at. If you throw in the lower priority incidents, things where they don't need them to arrive as quickly, then that rate almost doubles. So it's more than around four times every single hour. Of

CAVANAUGH: And what difference does it make if a responser comes nine minutes after a 911 call? What's the crucial point of this?

DILLON: Well, it's easy -- easiest to look at cardiac arrest calls that. Suggests that every minute that you wait is an extra 70% to 10% chance of someone passing away, unless they get help.

CAVANAUGH: Are there some neighborhoods at greater risk for a long emergency response time than others?

DILLON: Let's probably the main reason why we did this story and looked into it. There have been -- every three or four years or five years, I'm sure the chief knows this, someone will write about long response times. But what was D. For us for is this, this report, the consultant report looked objectively at the whole city and found that only within the highest risk in the city was within five neighborhoods that all happen to be within a 9.5 square miles of each other. And it also happened to be in some of the poorest and majority minority areas of the city as well. So we're talking about the area around Home Avenue, like I mentioned, paradise hill, the college area where we are right now, and in skyline and Encanto. So all within 9.5 miles of each other, and some of them happened to be some of the poorest and majority minority areas.

CAVANAUGH: What would be the reason for that, that the longest response times will be in this particular area in the city?

FENNESSY: Well, there's a number of factors, and the article points them out very well. From a population density perspective, a lot of people in that area. Where you have that kind of density, you're going to have more responses. If you look at the downtown area, we have a very significant daytime workday population. The response volume during the day downtown is significantly increased. We have a pretty significant response activity even at nighttime because of the vertical population, the folks that are living downtown now. But this area has historically been very busy for us. I personally 7ed in the mid-city station, station season? For a number of years, the busiest fire station in the city. And it's not uncommon to respond from one call to another to another all day, all night long. When we're tied up on that call and you need help, that resource has to come from a further distance. If all of those companies are busy, we get what's called call stacking, now we're starting to bring in resources from even further distanceses.

CAVANAUGH: That's one of the things your report pointed out, there's a curious situation where even if you live with a fire station just a couple blocks from you, you might experience one of these long wait times.

DILLON: Sure. I did a ride-along a couple weeks ago with one engine in Lincoln park, they were out, and it was a homeless gentleman who eventually was taken to the hospital, and right behind him, they were literally a block away when there was another cardiac arrest call that came in, and they were unable to go because they were dealing with this gentleman. And an engine from city height his to come in to address it. But is it simply population density is the only reason why these areas -- because you mentioned downtown, that is a denser population. Why again these sort of concentrated areas in the southern and eastern section of the city?

FENNESSY: From my perspective, it is largely population density. You'd adto it the number of interstate highways that run through the area, you have to look at the demographics, the ages of the people that live within those communities. It's not one thing. And if you looked at the map, and you did a pretty good job of that, our station spacing doesn't appear to be too bad in these calls. It's -- areas. It's the call volume.

CAVANAUGH: So if it's not the number of stations, how do you fix that problem?

FENNESSY: Well, you've got to add stations, you need people, you have to account for the run volume there. And Liam identified the top five stations are in that area. No. 1, Home avenue, paradise hills. The current station there is serving an area of square mileage that is incredible. Sometimes they're on fires where they're the only San Diego City engine that's there. The other engines are coming from other places. There's a gap in the college area, skyline, and Encanto. All those places need to be built out so we have the people available to answer those 911 calls.

DILLON: Just one more thing on that. I've gotten a lot of e-mails and calls from folks who say, look, these are areas of the city that have been traditionally neglected, some of the poorer areas of the city. To what extent are things like -- one commenter mentioned institutionalism racism, to what extent do you see that issues like that may be playing a role here?

FENNESSY: To be honest, I don't see that as a role at all. That would be speculative for I believe anybody to think that. I can tell you without question that in all the meetings I attend with city staff, the mayor's staff, council staff, not once has that ever been raised as an issue or concern or even a sidebar conversation.

CAVANAUGH: I do want to speak with cherric Lomeli. Welcome back to the program. Are you still with us cherish?

LOMELI: Yes, ma'am.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Now you live in Encanto, one of the neighborhoods we've been talking about, at greatest risk for the long wait times. You had a serious emergency. A 911 emergency in your home last year, you had some oven cleaner blowup in your face. Can you tell us who called 911 and what the wait time was like for you?

LOMELI: My wife did. And I don't recall the exact times. I don't have the information. But it seemed like an eternity.

CAVANAUGH: Where were you when you were waiting for emergency responders to arrive?

>> I was putting water on my face.

CAVANAUGH: Your phone seems to be breaking up a little bit. Let me ask you the final question, I'm sorry this is so brief, but do you have the feeling that if indeed first responders had gotten to you earlier after your -- this fireball exploded in your face, that it would have reduced your time in the hospital and the extent of your injuries?

LOMELI: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Well, all right then. Cherish, thank you so much, I appreciate you standing on the line with us. Thanks a lot. So there you have it. It's a real life example of somebody who just was waiting, I think she had to wait 11 minutes for first responders. So what are the actual reasons for this, chief? A lot of people are aware of this problem. We have had consultants aware of it, we have had politicians aware of it, Liam talks about the mayor promising to do something about trying to reduce response times and build these needed fire stations. So where were we in that?

FENNESSY: We talked about that a little bit in the green room. We're a service that you may never need to call in your life. So we're not really on your radar screen. However, when you need us, your expectation is that we get there quickly and provide an excellent service. As Liam mentioned, he talked about the response time, many things go into it other than the 7.5 minutes. How soon does somebody access 911? The police department or CHP get that second call. They have to transfer that to fire. We don't know right now because the police department have been very public about the need to replace their CAD system of the it's unclear many times how long that call takes to get transferred over. We get the call on our best day and get there in 7.5 minutes. If it's a large apartment complex or something else, now wee got to get the stuff off the engines and the ambulances, we've got to talk to the patient, we may need directions. It could very well take -- and if it's your emergency, I heard it all the time in the field, what took you so long? And we go back, and from our perspective, what -- from what we've measured, we had a pretty good response time T. Doesn't measure up if you're the one that needs our service.

CAVANAUGH: And what does the City of San Diego do to allocate resources for thesenieses -- these needed fire stations to make the response times better?

DILLON: Well, so far they haven't done anything. This study came out, and they had a plan of action in 2011 to build a fire station a year, at $10 million cost fully loaded with the staffing. And they haven't put any money toward any of it. They have given the fire department money to do other things.

CAVANAUGH: Chief

FENNESSY: Want to ask you about one way that the fire department is trying to fix this or help it a little bit. Fast response squads, that is not going to cost the city any money. But it may help decrease the time people wait for 911 emergencies -- help to arrive. Tell us about that.

FENNESSY: Well, it will be a cost to the city. Is it won't be nearly as much as it would be to build a fire station. Home gate identified largely ten stations. Will there were a number of calls, the response volume, you're going to need a fire station -- fire station there to provide that service. You could build another station in these other gap area, but the return on investment may not be there. So the fast response squads would for lack of a better word be placed in the seams, in between fire stations, nontransport units so they can access the patients that need our care very quickly, response to fires where they may get there in front of the engines, start to open doors for the roars coming up. Really the priority need is for the fire stations. We have had a committee put together a model, are. We've got a pilot program, and it's just at this point short the funding to put it on to see if in fact it's viable. We don't know that this idea is viable. We think it may be.

CAVANAUGH: And then again, I misspoke, that would cost a million dollars for each of those fast response squads; is that right?

FENNESSY: Well, I saw that, and I believe it's les. I look the liberty of looking at the plan.

DILLON: 750 to one million.

FENNESSY: There you go.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for this report.

DILLON: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And thank you so much for speaking with us today.

FENNESSY: Thank you.