San Diego's transition from AMR to Falck a success, city, company leaders say
The agency has not yet boosted coverage by the 20% it promised, but Falck is providing more coverage than AMR did despite staffing shortages
The San Diego Union-Tribune
SAN DIEGO — San Diego's transition to a new ambulance provider has gone relatively smoothly despite significant challenges presented by the recent COVID-19 surge, city and ambulance company officials said this week.
Two months after Falck USA replaced American Medical Response as the city's ambulance provider on Nov. 27, city officials say they don't have enough vetted and fully analyzed data to determine whether response times have improved.
But even when those response times become available, they will have been significantly affected by the surge, which has increased the number of emergency calls, exacerbated staffing issues and lengthened how long it takes ambulances to drop off patients at hospitals.
Despite that, there has been no outcry from residents about problems or slow response times, including in communities where response times have been most controversial — southeastern San Diego and along the Mexican border.
And Falck has made progress meeting a long list of city expectations, Deputy Fire Chief Jodie Pierce said this week.
"I feel like they are working hard at getting everything up and running," Pierce said of Falck. "It's a slower process than I think any of us anticipated. The surge has obviously had an impact."
The company has not yet boosted ambulance coverage across San Diego by the 20 percent it promised, but Falck is providing more coverage than AMR did despite staffing shortages blamed on the COVID-19 surge and Omicron variant.
Falck, the city's first new ambulance provider in more than two decades, promised to increase daily ambulance hours from 840 to 1,008 and increase the number of ambulances in operation by roughly a dozen.
"We are well into 900s on hours," said Jeff Behm, leader of Falck's local operations. Behm said he expects to reach the 1,008 goal by the end of March if the COVID surge dissipates as significantly as many are predicting.
The number of ambulances in operation has varied depending on the number of paramedics and emergency medical technicians available for work, which has fluctuated significantly because many have been out with COVID-19.
"It's kind of a bit of a roller coaster," Behm said.
The company also has struggled to hire enough workers, a problem experienced by ambulance providers nationwide during the pandemic.
Falck is well short of its goals of 192 full-time emergency medical technicians, or EMTS, and 148 full-time paramedics, which would be enough to cover vacations and workers calling in sick. The company has 125 paramedics and 171 EMTs.
Those numbers are also below the bare minimum numbers the company says it needs of 134 paramedics and 174 EMTs. But Falck has been using part-time workers and is in the process of hiring 12 EMTs and 14 paramedics, Behm said.
"It's not perfect, but I want to say we're making some real good progress," he said. "We've accomplished a lot since day one. There are still some things to be done in a new ramp-up — it's like starting a new business."
One factor making the transition smoother is that roughly 90 percent of Falck's San Diego workers had been working for AMR, the company Falck is replacing.
Falck, a Danish company that also runs ambulance service in Orange and Alameda counties, has made progress on its promise to provide an all-new fleet of 66 ambulances for its San Diego operation.
The company started with 33 new ambulances and 33 converted temporary vehicles. Nine new ambulances have since arrived, five that will start operations Friday and four that will start in roughly a week.
The remaining 24 are expected to trickle in from North Carolina at a rate of roughly two per week, Behm said.
Pierce, the deputy fire chief, said city officials have been working closely with Falck on a variety of issues.
"It's a process — there are achievements and there are challenges," she said. "We will continue to hold Falck accountable as we work through the various contract requirements. This is still very much early into the start-up so there is still work to be done."
Pierce said she expects to have enough vetted data next month to analyze how well Falck is meeting its response time goals and it's possible she will provide an update on the ambulance transition to the City Council's public safety committee in March.
Monica Montgomery Steppe, chair of that committee, said she expects an update during the first quarter of the year.
"I take community concerns very seriously, particularly when it comes to safety and accessibility to needed resources," said Montgomery Steppe, whose district includes much of southeastern San Diego. "We are continuing to monitor Falck's contract performance."
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