Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


San Diego's new ambulance provider falls short of staffing promise in progress report

San Diego’s new ambulance provider was grilled by city council members Wednesday after an early review found they were regularly understaffing ambulances. The fire department says they will be pursuing financial penalties. KPBS Health Reporter Matt Hoffman has more on why city officials are upset.

San Diego’s new ambulance provider is getting its first progress report since taking over full operations in late November. The San Diego City Council’s Public Safety and Liveable Neighborhood Committee is scheduled to hear how operations have been going on Wednesday.

Falck won the city’s 911 contract last year after beating out the previous provider, American Medical Response. Falck promised more staffing and new lifesaving equipment.

"The ramp up process was challenging," said Falck's managing director, Jeff Behm.


RELATED: 'Unacceptable performance:' San Diego's new ambulance provider facing fines for non-compliance

The company spent six months building up before taking over just after Thanksgiving, according to Behm, and he acknowledges that staffing requirements have not been met yet.

"We’re slightly below that level — it depends — it’s day to day," Behm said. "Now there’s challenges to that."

The most recent COVID-19 surge complicated operations.

"We just came on the other side of the omicron virus so that’s really good and our staffing is improving really well, but January was challenging," Behm said. "Twenty-five percent of our employees were out sick at some time with COVID."


Data from the city of San Diego over the last three months shows Falck has not quite met their monthly staffing requirement. In February they were about 8% short.

"We’re working toward meeting the goal we said we would meet and we’re in a much better position today than when we started," Behm said.

Fewer staffers means others have to pull extra shifts and the city is worried about busy crews and the potential for burnout.

"As we move through the contract we continue to address the requirements and as I mentioned Falck is making achievements with those requirements," said Jodie Pierce, the San Diego Fire Rescue deputy chief of emergency medical services (EMS).

Pierce said the city runs the 911 system with Falck providing ambulance transports.

"Each fire apparatus has a firefighter paramedic on it and then the second medic is coming from Falck ambulance and they are providing the transport to the hospital from the incident and that's where we work together to provide the service," Pierce said.

The department said to their knowledge everyone has gotten the care they needed and Pierce said that Falck’s three month report-card does not show the full picture.

"I feel very good about where we are right now in our contract agreement with them," she said.

Falck is following through on other contract obligations, like bringing in new ambulances. At least half of the fleet is brand new and Falck said all vehicles will be new by April.

"You can never go wrong with a brand new ambulance," said Falck Paramedic Supervisor Mark Selapack.

Selapack has worked emergency medical response in San Diego for 22 years, which has seen many different operators.

"Rural Metro, SDMSE, AMR and now Falck Mobile Health Corp," Selapack said.

The ambulances come with new technology that helps first responders and patients, like power loading gurneys.

"Save our backs," Selapack said. "Also with the wing gurneys it's most suited for the heavier patients, but one of the big factors in those gurneys is it prevents injuries."

Falck 911 paramedic Ojeni Touma said before patients had to be lifted manually into ambulances which could take more than one first responder.

"It’s also now just one person instead of sometimes two or three," she said.

Touma also demonstrated their new Lucas Devices, which is a piece of equipment that does automatic chest compressions.

"It allows one more person to do other things rather than compressions," Touma said. "It actually frees up two people.. We enjoy what it allows us to do."

While they have new equipment, staffing hours persist. Falck reports that response times are at or near 90% across the city.

"We’re really proud of our Falck employees our paramedics and EMTS making sure we get there as quickly as we can," Behm said. "It’s just been under some tremendous strain with COVID and folks being out ill and they’re just working really hard. We’re so proud of them and we want the community to know they are working hard for them too."

Falck could be fined by the city if they do not meet contract requirements. The San Diego Fire Rescue Department said they will continue working with the ambulance company to deliver the highest level of emergency services.