San Francisco officials defend ambulance response to fire victims

First ambulance arrived in 13 minutes; at time of fire the system had more calls than ambulances available

By Evan Sernoffsky
San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO — A father and his 13-year-old daughter who were overcome by a fire that tore through their family’s Mission District home remained in critical condition Thursday, as San Francisco Fire Department officials defended a 13-minute response time for the first ambulance that arrived at the scene.

The Fire Department was inundated with emergency calls early Wednesday when the two-alarm fire broke out, delaying the first ambulance by about six minutes — which, department officials said, was acceptable under the circumstances.

“All things considered, we are very happy and are satisfied with the response times,” said Chief Joanne Hayes-White.

Firefighters got to the blaze in a home above a liquor store at 24th Street and Treat Avenue within three minutes after being called at 4:30 a.m., and had all five members of the family out of the two-story building in a quick and difficult rescue operation, officials said.

Crews pulled two boys, ages 6 and 17, from a second-story bedroom window, while firefighters crawled beneath flames and thick smoke to reach three others trapped inside the home.

The father, 38-year-old Mohamed Shaibi, and his 13-year-old daughter remained in critical condition Thursday at San Francisco General Hospital with injuries related to smoke inhalation, officials said. The younger boy was transferred Wednesday to St. Francis Memorial Hospital, where his mother and brother were recovering.

News of the delayed ambulances comes as the Fire Department remains under pressure to bring down ambulance response times during life-threatening emergency calls. The department’s goal is to have an ambulance reach a scene in such cases within 10 minutes, 90 percent of the time.

City leaders have launched a variety of initiatives, including hiring more paramedics and using private ambulances, to reduce response times. In November, ambulances arrived at 90 percent of incidents within 12.7 minutes — down from 14.6 minutes in August — according to a December report released by the mayor’s office.

Mindy Talmadge, a Fire Department spokeswoman, said Wednesday’s fire illustrated that unforeseen circumstances can affect response time.

“At the time of the fire, the system was experiencing three times the normal average call volume, which definitely would affect ambulance response,” she said. “The system is staffed based on averages. There were 11 ambulances in the system and there were 14 calls. Normally, there are five calls an hour.”

The department said it did not send an ambulance to the blaze when fire crews were first dispatched, because none was available. But a crew was coming on shift, and six minutes after the initial call, an ambulance was dispatched.

Seven minutes later, it was at the scene of the fire, and was soon joined by three other ambulances that were redirected from non-life-threatening emergency calls, officials said.

It was not immediately clear if any of the fire victims had to wait after they were rescued and before they were taken to the hospital. Firefighters, who are trained paramedics, gave CPR to three of the family members at the scene. The 6-year-old, who was unconscious, was revived in the middle of 24th Street.

“The most important things were done,” Talmadge said. “It might have gotten to the hospital two minutes earlier, but they were doing CPR en route. Ideally, it would be wonderful if we didn’t have these surges, but we have to staff based on what the averages are.”

Fire Department inspectors were still working to determine the cause of the blaze Thursday and were waiting to see if the conditions of the critical patients improved so that they could be interviewed. It was not clear if the home had working smoke detectors.

Investigators, though, determined the fire originated upstairs, not in the liquor store that the family operated on the building’s ground level. Authorities estimated the fire did $700,000 in damage to the property and $250,000 in damage to the building’s contents.

When firefighters first arrived on scene, they clipped a padlock on the liquor store’s front gate and found two men in the commercial space, which had sleeping quarters, officials said. Those men took off from the scene.

According to city Department of Building Inspection records, the owner has not received any violations since 2006.

©2015 the San Francisco Chronicle

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