Falck takes over San Diego's ambulance service in smooth transition
The company hired many of the paramedics and EMTs who had been working for AMR
The San Diego Union-Tribune
SAN DIEGO — Aiming to boost emergency response times with more ambulances on the road for longer hours, San Diego switched the company than runs the city's ambulance service on Saturday from American Medical Response to Falck USA.
It's the first time in more than two decades that San Diego has made such a change. Daily ambulance hours are increasing from 840 to 1,008, and the number of ambulances is going up by roughly a dozen.
The switch, which was endorsed by Fire-Rescue Chief Colin Stowell and approved by the City Council in April, has been praised by civil rights leaders as an opportunity to boost poor response times south of state Route 94.
The transition officially began at 7:49 a.m. Saturday when a Falck ambulance responded to a medical emergency in San Ysidro. City officials said that response and several others on Saturday morning went smoothly.
City fire officials worked closely with Falck during a six-month transition period to prepare for the takeover, which required AMR to continue handling ambulance service as a lame-duck provider while Falck ramped up its local operation.
"It's been a very smooth transition," Deputy Fire Chief Jodie Pierce said Saturday morning at an ambulance staging area in Kearny Mesa. "The last six months of work have really paid off today. It is a culmination of everybody's work."
Pierce stressed that there is no change in service for San Diego residents, just a different name on the ambulance that will show up.
"There is absolutely no interruption to the 911 service to our communities," said Pierce, noting that people call the same phone number, reach the same dispatchers and will see many of the same paramedics and emergency medical technicians.
Falck, a Danish company that also runs ambulance service in Orange and Alameda counties, hired many of the paramedics and EMTs that had been working for San Diego as AMR employees.
"That's what makes it such a seamless process," Pierce said.
One concern was that the end of the six-month transition happened to fall on a holiday weekend when call volume is typically high. But Pierce said there had been no problems.
"This was probably not the ideal, but we have adapted and we have come out stronger and we are prepared to provide the service," she said.
Falck officials were equally positive about the switch.
"This is a big day all around — for the city, for San Diego residents and for Falck," said Jeff Behm, the company official leading Falck's local operation. "It's starting a big, new journey for us."
Behm said Falck is ramping up to the promised 1,008 daily ambulance hours. They started operations with 33 of their 66 ambulances as brand-new vehicles; the 33 older vehicles are slated for replacement with new models in the spring.
In addition to putting more ambulances on the streets for more hours, Falck also plans to use analytics to improve service, Behm said. The company will create models to determine typical call volumes by geography and time of day.
"It's so that you are not wasting unit hours, you are using them more efficiently," Behm said.
He predicted Falck would be done with the "settling in" process in roughly 30 to 60 days. One concern is the company's struggles to hire enough paramedics, which has been a nationwide problem since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Behm said the company, which was nine paramedics short of its goal a month ago, has fallen a bit further behind since then.
Pierce said city officials will soon begin reviewing Falck's performance on response times to see where improvements can be made.
"We will be collecting data over the next few months so we can have a retrospective as well as a prospective look at where we are sitting," she said.
©2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune