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More ambulances will be responding to San Diego emergencies

FALCK ambulances parked outside Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, Calif. Feb. 16, 2023.
Matthew Bowler
FALCK ambulances parked outside Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, Calif. Feb. 16, 2023.

The San Diego City Council approved a deal Tuesday which allows Falck, the city’s current ambulance provider, to contract with American Medical Response (AMR) for four additional ambulance crews every day, working 12-hour shifts. A move that fire department officials hope will help boost response times. The new deal will take effect later this month.

“This is going to stabilize the system immediately — bring additional ambulances there — improve response times,” said San Diego Fire-Rescue Chief Colin Stowell.

Falck took over San Diego’s 911 contract in late 2021 after beating out AMR in bidding. AMR crews will be back in the city, at least temporarily. Falck promised 900 advanced-life-support-ambulance hours daily, but it has failed to hit that number consistently. The goal of this agreement is to subcontract any missing hours to AMR. The fire chief said the agreement could add up to 10 daily ambulance crews in April, but it will start with four.


“It’s the right thing to do for people experiencing medical emergencies to whom we all remain committed to provide the best possible care,” said Troy Hagen, Falck’s chief commercial officer.

AMR officials confirmed they will start providing the extra ambulances as soon as May 29.

"AMR stands ready to provide the much needed additional ambulance coverage to the City of San Diego," said Kevin Mercer, AMR's regional director for San Diego and Imperial County. "We appreciate the opportunity to again provide paramedic ambulance service to the people of San Diego."

Since taking over San Diego’s ambulance contract, Falck has been fined about $3 million for delayed response times. Under this subcontracting model, the company can use previously collected penalties to pay for AMR’s additional ambulances.

“I don't want penalty money from Falck — I want the ambulance system to work, and so if this is how we make it work — I’m happy to support that,” said City Councilmember Marni von Wilpert.


Von Wilpert also chairs the council’s public safety committee, where Falck and San Diego Fire-Rescue leadership regularly provides updates. Falck has faced staffing shortages, which management said is a nationwide trend impacting emergency medical services. Late last year, the company introduced a $50,000 sign-on bonus for new paramedics, saying it has helped with recruitment.

“We have made progress — albeit slowly,” Hagen said.

The contract amendment is the first step for the San Diego-Fire Rescue Department to take more control over emergency medical services. That move is expected to be presented to the council’s public safety committee in July. The new agreement to add ambulances from another provider also means current Falck paramedics will see pay raises under a new collective bargaining agreement.

“Our new three year successor contract will increase recruitment efforts and go a long way to the retention of our current, experienced workforce,” said president of the San Diego Association of Prehospital Professionals, Tony Sorci, who represents Falck employees.

Paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) will see a 9% raise in the first year, followed by 4% in the second and third years. Sorci said Tuesday that Falck currently has 121 paramedics, and he wants to see numbers grow to 140. He said the agreement with AMR is welcomed as there has been an increase in call volume with the recent staffing shortages.

“These are staggering numbers for any EMS (emergency medical services) system and a true challenge for any workforce our size,” Sorci said. “The men and women of our workforce accept that challenge because they are dedicated professionals who always put the needs of others before themselves.”

Fire-Rescue Chief Stowell said the city is also having trouble hiring firefighter-paramedics. He said the fire department is holding more internal paramedic training classes and working to expand the number of recruits in them.

“Ideally, we would like to hire 50% of our fire recruits as paramedics,” Stowell said. “We’re averaging less than 10% of those folks being paramedics trained.”

A Falck spokesperson said the additional AMR ambulances and crews will be assigned in the South Bay and San Diego's southeast regions, but could move depending on where they are needed.

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