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SF ambulances arrive late to life-threatening calls during sweltering weekend heat

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Two EMT responders work the scene of a cyclist injury near Fourth and Mission streets in San Francisco, Calif. June 21 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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San Francisco was so short on ambulances during the record-setting heat last weekend that it took about an hour for them to respond to some life-threatening calls, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.

San Francisco Fire Department records obtained by the Examiner show that fire engines waited more than 20 minutes for an ambulance to arrive at the scene of 28 life-threatening calls. The goal is for an ambulance to arrive at a life-threatening emergency within 10 minutes 90 percent of the time.

Emergency officials called for additional ambulances through mutual aid from numerous Bay Area counties and Sacramento to handle the uptick in medical calls, according to the dispatchers union.

“They were so short on medics they couldn’t figure out what to do,” said Burt Wilson, chapter president for dispatchers with SEIU Local 1021, who worked Friday and Saturday night. “I heard there were some engines waiting on an ambulance over an hour.

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As San Francisco reached its record-high temperature of 106, preliminary reports show 60 people were admitted over the weekend for heat-related illness, according to the Department of Public Health.

City officials have yet to release information on any heat-related deaths in San Francisco.

It took an ambulance 52 minutes to respond to a life-threatening call after firefighters arrived to find a person who fainted and was not alert at a home in Visitacion Valley before 8 p.m. on Saturday, fire records show.

Another person who had trouble breathing Saturday during an arrest on Seventh Street waited for 48 minutes for an ambulance to respond to the life-threatening call.

In yet another case, a patient waited on an ambulance for nearly 74 minutes at UCSF Medical Center to be transferred to another hospital Friday.

Records show that fire engines waited on an ambulance for more than 20 minutes a total of 46 times between Friday and Saturday. The engines often responded to the calls within 10 minutes.

The numbers may not include response times for ambulances from other counties or private companies.

DPH spokesperson Rachael Kagan said in an email that “the average response times were all within the target.”

Kagan said the average time for an ambulance to arrive at a life-threatening incident was a little more than six minutes.

But Supervisor Aaron Peskin called the response times “entirely unacceptable.”

“The city and county of San Francisco was caught flat-footed,” he said.

Peskin said he will continue to push for San Francisco to improve its emergency response times at upcoming hearings.

“If we can’t get a heat wave right, we are in big trouble,” Peskin said, alluding to the potential for a major earthquake shaking The City.

The City dealt with a far higher than normal number of emergency medical responses Friday — more than twice the number of needed responses than the Friday before.

On Aug. 25 emergency services responded to 570 calls. But on Friday during the heat wave, they responded to 1,342 emergencies.

That number crept up to 1,413 emergency medical service responses on Saturday, and slipped down to 994 by Sunday as The City’s temperatures cooled.

Wilson compared the heat wave to New Year’s Eve and said that emergency officials were not prepared.

The Department of Emergency Management activated its Emergency Operations Center to coordinate various city agencies during times of need by 5 p.m. on Friday, hours after the temperature broke 100 degrees.

“You’re supposed to be preparing for this,” Wilson said. “Our department doesn’t prepare for anything because they’re so short staffed.”

The department has struggled to retain and hire dispatchers in recent years as emergency call volume has surged in San Francisco. The City is failing to meet the national standard for answering 911 calls within 10 seconds.

“What happens if we have an earthquake and we’re so short staffed? What happens if there’s an active shooter? Better yet, what happens if someone takes a car and drives through Union Square?” Wilson said. “How fast do we get dispatchers in?”

Wilson said ambulances responded to San Francisco from the cities or counties of Solano, Napa, Alameda, Sacramento, Santa Clara and San Jose.

On Friday, an additional 8-9 ambulances from other counties aided San Francisco, and on Saturday that number rose to 11, Kagan said.

SFFD spokesperson Jonathan Baxter said the department has not finished totaling numbers from the weekend.

“Over the Labor Day weekend we have experienced an increase in calls and are responding to provide the public with the service they expect from SFFD,” Baxter said in a text message.

DEM spokesperson Francis Zamora did not respond to requests for comment.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with additional information.

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