San Francisco ambulance response times investigated by grand jury

The 19-member civilian panel found limited progress because of understaffing, deferred maintenance costs, outdated facilities and a lack of strategic planning

By Jaxon Van Derbeken
San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco Fire Department has made strides in getting ambulances to emergencies faster, but still lags behind state response time standards and is not training crews to deal with a disaster, a civil grand jury said Thursday.

The 19-member civilian panel began its investigation after The Chronicle reported last year about the city’s troubled response time record. An examination of a year’s worth of 911 calls found that the Fire Department was regularly failing to meet its 10-minute standard for responding to life-threatening emergencies and that the delays were most likely to affect people calling from neighborhoods along the city’s southern rim.

The civil grand jury said the Fire Department has been making only incremental progress in fixing the problem because of understaffing, millions of dollars in deferred maintenance, outdated facilities and a lack of strategic planning.

“Reports generated by SFFD staff show response time progress, but the department is still not achieving the (state) mandates,” the panel concluded.

In a statement, Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said her staff would reply to the findings within two months.

The civil grand jury cited data showing that Fire Department ambulances reached emergency scenes within 10 minutes 87 percent of the time in June, short of the state standard of 90 percent. That was an improvement, however, over the 83 percent level in January, the grand jury found.

The city beefed up its ambulance staffing after The Chronicle’s investigation last year, but the grand jury found that response problems persist in some parts of the city. In areas farthest from hospitals, patients must wait more than 10 minutes for ambulances in one out of four emergencies, the panel said.

One problem, the grand jury said, is that the city suffers from a “chronic lack of serviceable ambulances.” Half of its 54-ambulance fleet has been in service beyond the expected 10-year life span, and as many as one-third are in the shop at any one time, the grand jury said.

“The ambulance fleet is aging; more than a few need to be permanently retired,” the panel said. “As time is of the essence in responding to medical calls, dependable ambulances are a must.”

The grand jury also cited other emergency-response issues in the Fire Department, particularly what the panel called its lack of planning for dealing with a disaster.

“Living in a time when a terrorist strike on San Francisco could be a reality rather than a movie, we asked SFFD personnel about the training they receive to respond to a disaster,” the grand jury said. “Their responses indicated that such training is not provided, particularly for rank and file.”

In an interview, grand jury forewoman Janice Pettey said, “We were shocked. You would think the Fire Department would have a plan in place.”

The panel said the department’s lack of strategic planning has been noted in city reports as far back as 2002. “SFFD has no formal strategic plan and is not creating such a plan in the near future,” the panel said.

Hayes-White’s office did not respond to questions about long-term planning.


©2015 the San Francisco Chronicle

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