The vast majority of calls the Santa Clara County Fire Department receives are for medical emergencies, but firefighters “over-deploy” costly resources and respond with equipment and personnel better suited for battling a blaze, according to a county civil grand jury report released last week.
Los Altos, with fire stations on Almond and Fremont avenues, has contracted with the Santa Clara County Fire Department since 1996.
The 12-member civil grand jury, a watchdog group, claims that ambulance personnel, who respond after fire engines if necessary, could more effectively and inexpensively handle the “overwhelming” number of medical calls currently served by $500,000 engines. Now, one EMT-trained firefighter rides with three to four other non-EMTs on a call.
“Taxpayers can no longer afford to fund the status quo,” the report asserted. “Given that approximately 70 percent of calls to the department are reporting medical emergencies rather than fire … there appears to be a mismatch between services needed and services provided.”
The civil grand jury report suggests that firefighters began obtaining paramedic certification in the 1970s to remain relevant when building codes started to require flame-retardant materials. According to the report, approximately 4 percent of the department’s calls are for actual fires.
County fire chief Ken Kehmna, appointed to the top spot in May, has 90 days to formally respond to the report’s findings. He said in an interview last week that he looks forward to exploring opportunities to increase efficiency.
“This gives us an opportunity to open dialogue and talk about various things, which is good,” he said, declining to say whether or not he agreed with the grand jury’s findings. “We’re always looking for opportunities to improve our operational model.”
Los Altos spends approximately $5 million of its $28 million annual budget on its contract with the county fire department, according to Los Altos Assistant City Manager J. Logan.
“Having worked very closely with county fire … they provide a gold-plate service to the community,” she said. “But it’s very costly – it’s a very rigid business model and does not give us the ability to control costs. … That’s what we’re concerned about.”
The civil grand jury report agrees that maintaining response times amid any protocol changes is crucial, but it insisted that the current situation could force cities’ departments to close altogether. Spreading resources more broadly, it says, would prevent shuttering doors.
But standing in the way of change, the report noted, is the politically powerful firefighters’ union, which the grand jury said focuses on “sustaining old models, entrenched expectations and ongoing entitlements at the expense of better-performing, more efficient fire departments.”
Kehmna, who isn’t part of the union, said he preferred to issue a response in writing, saying only that the agency has an “outstanding relationship with its union.”