Calif. fire chief: Department handled more calls with fewer resources in 2017

Of the 836 transient-related calls the fire department responded to, 95 percent were for medical reasons such as drug overdoses and alcohol-related issues

By John Bays
Lodi News-Sentinel

LODI, Calif. — Last year, the Lodi Fire Department responded to more service calls despite having fewer resources.

Although the department received 18 percent more calls in 2017 than 2016, Fire Engine One was unavailable for an even greater part last year than the previous year, according to Interim Fire Chief Gene Stoddart.

“In 2017, we had 7,040 calls compared to the last year, when we had 5,796. 2017 was also the first year that we tracked transient-related calls. We saw that there was an influx of those calls, and with the City of Lodi trying to be proactive about transient-related issues, we can at least take a count,” Stoddart said.

Of the 836 transient-related calls the fire department responded to, 95 percent were for medical reasons such as drug overdoses, alcohol-related issues and other illnesses, according to Stoddart. He explained that a homeless person is more susceptible to common diseases than somebody with a permanent residence, citing people who sleep outside without access to regular hygiene.

“Someone who lives under the Mokelumne River Bridge is more likely to catch a cold or the flu because they don’t have the same luxuries of life that most of us do. What can we do for somebody with a cold who says they want to go to the hospital? Obviously, we can’t do much besides take their information and pass it along to the ambulance,” Stoddart said.

When firefighters respond to medical calls, which Stoddart said accounted for approximately 68 percent of the department’s calls for 2016 and 2017, they provide basic life support such as CPR or defibrillation when necessary to keep the patient alive until EMTs arrive to provide advanced life support. Firefighters can also stop bleeding, administer oxygen and begin to diagnose medical problems before passing the information along to EMTs.

Even if lifesaving measures are not needed, firefighters still wait with the patients until an ambulance arrives, which Battalion Chief Michael Alegre of Fire Station One said prevents them from responding to other calls. This leads to multiple difficulties, especially when the department received an average of 19 calls per day, according to Stoddart.

“If the ambulance is not on the scene, we’re pretty much tied to the incident until it gets there. The patient might not necessarily be in critical condition, but the laws dictate that we have to stay on the scene until we can transfer care to a medical authority of equal or higher ranking, which would be the ambulance,” Alegre said.

Despite the 18 percent increase in calls, Fire Station One was unstaffed, or “browned out,” for 75 percent of 2017 compared to 40 percent of 2016, Stoddart said. Although fires only made up 4 percent of their calls for both years, they had to decrease the number of calls to which they responded such as low-level medical calls where there was no risk to anybody’s health, Stoddart explained. Additionally, having one less engine available to respond to other calls for much of the year created longer wait times for fires, according to Alegre.

“Statutes and laws dictate that we have to have a certain number of personnel on scene before we can make entry into a structure fire. For every two men who enter the structure, we have to have two more outside to rescue them if the building collapses or explodes, or if somebody goes down. That’s an OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) mandate,” Alegre said.

To compensate for their decreased staffing, the Lodi Fire Department had to request mutual aid from fire departments in Stockton, Woodbridge and other areas in San Joaquin County, Alegre said. This led to its own host of logistical problems such as differences in tactics, equipment and the number of firefighters staffing each engine as well as wait times of up to 30 minutes in the case of the fire at Epic Plastics Inc., in Lodi on Nov. 8, 2016.

“The time delay resulted in a lot more product burning,” Alegre said.

Between the increase in calls and decrease in staffing, the Lodi Fire Department may be faced with difficult choices regarding the number of calls they respond to in 2018, according to Stoddart.

“We’re at the point where we have to make some drastic decisions about cutting down on the amount of service calls we respond to because our guys are just being run ragged right now,” Stoddart said,

Additionally, the fire department will address the issue of who responds to psychiatric calls which Stoddart feels they are not qualified to handle. Firefighters are not trained to help people suffering from mental illnesses, nor are they able to restrain those who present a danger to themselves or others, he explained. Additionally, he said, private ambulances do not transport patients to psychiatric facilities, placing responsibility solely on the shoulders of the Lodi Police Department.

“The police department has to determine how to handle psych patients and contact (San Joaquin) County Behavioral Health. Combined with how short-staffed the police department is, a person’s delayed transportation to a behavioral health facility could be very extended. It’s an area where we can really do something, we just have to invest the time to make better care for those people, make it safer for our firefighters and alleviate some of the calls for the police department,” Stoddart said.

Copyright 2018 Lodi News-Sentinel

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