Calif. city investigates 24-minute ambulance delay
Patients said paramedics arrived within five minutes, but were forced to wait for EMT to take them to hospital
By Alana Garrigues
The Beach Reporter
HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — When Hermosa Beach resident Norman Potter called 911 on Sept. 7 for his stepson, who went into convulsions while on dialysis in the family’s home on 11th Street, it took 24 minutes for the emergency medical team ambulance to arrive and transport him to the hospital.
The man has a complicated and delicate medical history. According to Potter, his stepson has had five organ transplants and undergoes dialysis at home six nights a week. He says the paramedics arrived within five minutes, but they were then forced to wait for an EMT to take them to the hospital.
“The paramedic was here very quickly. It was determined that he needed to go to the hospital,” Potter said. “There was some concern that he might have a brain bleed. We were forced to wait (24) minutes before an ambulance service came to transport him to the hospital.
“I want all of our citizens to know they are at risk. If any of your loved ones have a heart attack or a seizure or anything, and our primary paramedic unit is already dispersed, you’re going to be forced to wait for Torrance, Redondo Beach or Manhattan Beach to come to your aid, or contract with a private ambulance company like McCormick who has already shown they couldn’t get there in less than 25 minutes.”
A week prior, Potter said that while on the pier with his wife, he witnessed a gang fight and drug deal on the plaza. He called the police and waited while it took them five minutes to respond. The plaza is only a 30-second drive from the police station.
In both incidents, Potter worried about the amount of time emergency responders took to react.
On Sept. 11, Potter approached the city council during its meeting to express his concern for the safety of Hermosa Beach residents on both accounts. He acknowledged a history of prompt responses and good customer service in previous emergency incidents and opined that decreased police and fire staff was the cause of the delays.
“We value the paramedics in this city above all else,” Potter said. “Two years ago, my wife had a stroke and her doctors commented that without the quick action of the Hermosa Beach paramedics, she would not have made it.” Councilman Michael DiVirgilio said that he would be interested in an investigation and a staff report from both the fire and police chiefs to shed light on the incidents.
“I think an update about where each of the vehicles were, who was responding, why there was not Manhattan Beach or Redondo Beach available, just so we’re clear on the details of the situation would be good,” DiVirgilio said. “He’s raised a couple good points, and I’d like to know the background.”
Fire Chief David Lantzer said that he looked into the ambulance response on Sept. 7 and said that while the paramedics arrived within five minutes of the 911 call and the man’s safety was not compromised during the long wait, he had two primary concerns about what happened that day.
The first was that during the 24 minutes in which Potter and his stepson waited for the EMT, the paramedics were required to stay by their side and provide care. Lantzer worried about the time the Potters had to wait, as well as the time that the paramedics were unavailable for other local calls. Paramedics are required to stay by a patient’s side until they can be released to similar or better care, meaning they had to wait for the EMT ambulance for transport along with the family. During that time, they ensured the patient’s life was not in danger, but they would have been unable to respond to any other incident in Hermosa Beach during that time.
Lantzer’s second concern was that the entire situation reflected poorly on the fire department as a negative customer service issue.
“In this case, the patient did not require paramedic transport, but he did require hospital transport,” Lantzer said. “There is an issue with the fact the units had to remain at the scene and wait for a transport ambulance to arrive, so that concerns me. It also concerns me that any resident has to wait 24 minutes for an ambulance to pick them up.”
According to Lantzer, there are two levels of ambulances in the Hermosa Beach Fire Department. The top level, the paramedics, are full-time fire department employees trusted to provide care and transport for life-threatening emergencies.
The second level, the EMTs, are part-time certified employees who would generally arrive with the paramedic and assume responsibility for the transport of non-life threatening emergencies such as Potter’s stepson. They can offer basic life support.
“The basic life support ambulance is not always staffed,” Lantzer said. “They are part-time employees and work typically one day a week. We try to get enough on staff to staff the ambulance every day, seven days a week, but we have a lot of turnover with that group of employees because they are part-time. They are often looking for full-time jobs, or they go back to college. We are very selective about who we hire, because we want people of high character. They are a direct representative of our city with the residents.”
He said that the department does not have enough EMTs to man the second ambulance 24 hours every day, so they partner with the Manhattan Beach EMT to cover the gaps. But on Sept. 7, neither city had EMT coverage. In such an instance, HBFD is forced to call in a third party. That day, it was the private company McCormick Ambulance, and they took 24 minutes to arrive from the time the request from the fire department was made. Their dispatch told Hermosa officials that the ambulance would arrive within eight to 10 minutes.
Lantzer said that while he was worried about the situation, he could not recall any similar incidents. However, he will work closely with his department to ensure it will not happen again.
“Hermosa Beach is moving proactively to increase its ambulance operator recruiting to have more staffing available, and the city has a new coordinator in place to ensure more flexibility in ambulance operator scheduling so our transport ambulances are more fully staffed,” Lantzer said.
He also wanted the public to understand that although the delay was disappointing and would be addressed, the patient’s life was never at risk.
“The patient’s safety and well-being was not jeopardized by this incident,” Lantzer said. “It still concerns me because I don’t want people to wait that long, and our paramedic was tied up that amount of time. But I want to reiterate that the patient’s safety was not compromised.”
Joe Chidley of McCormick Ambulance said the company makes an average of eight to 10 calls per month in Hermosa Beach.
“We provide them backup on an as-needed basis. If they are out of units, they can request one of ours and we’ll send them our closest available unit,” Chidley said. “Normally, we are able to respond in less than 10 minutes. However, that day we didn’t have the unit available near Hermosa at the time. We never know when the calls are going to come in, so we’re never in any kind of position to back them up strategically. It’s just when they run short, they call us.”
Republished with permission from the Beach Reporter