Calif. fire chief requests investigation into Falck USA

Oakland's chief says the company, which is set to become San Diego's new ambulance provider, has not provided reliable service in Northern California


David Garrick
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Falck USA, the company set to become San Diego's new ambulance provider next month, is facing criticism for poor response times in Northern California and questions about recent changes in the company's leadership team.

The Oakland fire chief says Falck has not been providing reliable service to his community. He requested last week an investigation into the company's failure to meet response times required in its contract with Alameda County.

San Diego Fire Chief Colin Stowell has raised concerns that Falck is struggling to hire paramedics and to secure new ambulances before it takes over city emergency operations on Nov. 27.
San Diego Fire Chief Colin Stowell has raised concerns that Falck is struggling to hire paramedics and to secure new ambulances before it takes over city emergency operations on Nov. 27.

Falck also is facing criticism over the abrupt departure of the company's chief executive a few days after Falck landed the San Diego ambulance contract last spring.

Some critics also are questioning the qualifications of the man Falck officials recently hired to lead the company's San Diego operations. The emergency system where he previously worked ceased operations under his leadership.

The new questions and criticisms come two weeks after San Diego Fire Chief Colin Stowell raised concerns that Falck is struggling to hire paramedics and to secure new ambulances in advance of taking over city emergency operations on Nov. 27.

The takeover will come after a six-month transition period the City Council approved when it chose Falck over American Medical Response as San Diego's ambulance provider, based on promises of better service and response times.

Stowell said this week that the vocal complaints about Falck by officials in Northern California are obviously a concern. But he said the response time problems there appear to be mostly outside of Falck's control.

Falck officials agreed, contending the response time delays are the result of staffing shortages in a notoriously tough labor market and unusually long waits during hospital drop-offs because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an open letter Sept. 17, Oakland Fire Chief Reginald Freeman requested an investigation into Falck's response times, contending there had been 462 delayed responses between July 1 and Aug. 17 — an average of 11 per day.

"Falck Ambulance has consistently not been providing reliable emergency transportation within the city limits of Oakland," Freeman said. "Our residents and visitors deserve to have the best services which includes their loved one(s) being transported to the hospital in an expeditious, safe and orderly manner when there is a medical emergency."

Early this week, Alameda County EMS chief Lauri McFadden sent Falck a letter notifying the company its response times have been out of compliance and must improve.

"These performance shortfalls represent an unacceptable progression of Falck's poor response-time trends, which the EMS Agency has been raising with Falck with increasing alarm and to which Falck has responded with a disappointing lack of urgency," McFadden wrote.

Chief Stowell said he believes the criticisms by Freeman and McFadden are strategic moves to pressure hospitals to improve layover times.

"They want to let Falck know they need to do a better job and have better response times, but this is probably a strategic move on their part to draw attention from the hospitals," Stowell said. "The hospitals are where this issue is."

Stowell said San Diego is experiencing similar issues with hospital delays. He noted that incumbent ambulance provider AMR is out of compliance with its response-time requirements in the southern part of the city because of hospital delays and staffing shortages.

Troy Hagen, Falck's communications chief in California, said the staffing and hospital issues are industrywide challenges. He said hiring has gone well enough in San Diego that problems like this are unlikely for Falck here.

On the departure of Falck chief executive Matt Gallagher shortly after San Diego chose the company, Stowell said it was surprising and that it "raised his eyebrows."

Gallagher assured San Diego City Council members last spring that the company is committed to fulfilling all of the promises it has made to San Diego.

That assurance came after critics speculated that if Falck does not meet its revenue projections, the company would either reduce service in San Diego, cut employee pay or ask the city to raise ambulance rates.

"Falck is looking to grow in the U.S. and provide 9-1-1 services to great cities like San Diego," Gallagher told the council in April. "We can only do that based on our reputation."

Then he resigned after San Diego agreed to switch to Falck. His reasons were not specified.

"When you've got a face of the organization that's been up in front of council all of that time and all of the sudden he is now leaving, you have to question why," Stowell said this week. "Did we get some definitive answers from Falck as to why he was leaving? We did not."

But Stowell stressed that the city's contract is with Falck, not Gallagher.

Hagen said Gallagher resigned to pursue other opportunities. And he stressed that Gallagher's departure won't impact the company's commitments to San Diego.

"Whether he is here or gone has no bearing on the contract itself," Hagen said. "The company is bound by the contract. We stand 100 percent behind the commitments we made to San Diego."

Stowell praised Jeff Behm, the man appointed to lead Falck's San Diego operations, suggesting that his experience running various kinds of emergency operations might bring more innovation to San Diego.

Critics have noted that Behm has not overseen an emergency response system as large as San Diego's. The regional system he oversaw in New Jersey before joining Falck ceased operations while he was in charge.

Hagen said that was a planned shutdown, based on a decision by a group of hospitals the system was serving to change their emergency response model.

"He is absolutely qualified," Hagen said. "He came with very strong references that were validated and verified. He's got a stellar reputation."

Falck has spent millions buying ambulances and hiring workers to serve San Diego, so it would likely be difficult for the city to get out of its deal with Falck without a risk of being sued for breach of contract.

Stowell is scheduled to provide an update on the transition to the council's public safety committee on Oct. 20.

©2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Visit sandiegouniontribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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