Response to emergencies can be slow

In potentially deadly situations when every second counts, emergency responders show up to The City’s northeastern neighborhoods more than a minute earlier than those in southern areas, a new report said.

Pacific Heights, the Marina district and surrounding neighborhoods had the quickest time for a first responder to arrive at the scene of an emergency following a 911 call at 4 minutes 3 seconds, according to a San Francisco Fire Department report due to be released Thursday.

There’s a discrepancy, however, between the times the Fire Department posts when reporting to calls in areas that fall outside the northern part of San Francisco.

It took more than 5 minutes for first responders to travel to the Ingleside, Bayview, Visitacion Valley and Outer Sunset neighborhoods, the report said.

The results confirmed the concerns of Fire Commission President Victor Makras, who called for the performance report in order to prove, and ultimately try, to resolve what he called a lack of equality in The City’s emergency response services.

The good news is that the results show an improvement in response time citywide from recent years, Makras said. In a 2007 report, no city district met the overall 6½-minute standard, which allows 2 minutes for dispatch and 4½ minutes for medics to arrive.

Still, the disparity between the south and north must end, Makras said.

“Why is it the same districts that don’t meet the time frame?” he said. “We have to provide equal service to everyone in The City.”

However, that’s not easy to do, particularly with budget cuts and geographical issues, Fire Department spokeswoman Lt. Mindy Talmadge said. The southern neighborhoods encompass larger areas that require longer travel distances and also have a number of roadway impediments, including a high number of traffic signals, she said.

Talmadge also said dispatchers have been exceeding the recommended time it takes to let emergency responders know where they have to go and what they are dealing with.

The nationwide recommendation is that the dispatch process take no longer than 2 minutes, but that’s not simple to achieve in San Francisco, where 38 percent of callers are likely to speak a language other than English, said Lisa Hoffman, a deputy director for the Department of Emergency Communications.

“Eighty percent of our delays are because of translation,” she said.

Calls that are lost in translation must be forwarded to a special center, which lengthens the dispatch process, Hoffman said.

She also noted that “we do get many, many, many more calls in the northern areas than the southern areas” due to population density, Hoffman said.

Also, establishing the exact location of callers using cell phones can delay the dispatch process.

Nevertheless, Makras said The City needs to “appropriately position our apparatus to assure success.” That means the Fire Department needs to position ambulances and other first responders around The City in a way that everyone will receive the same, swift attention when there’s a medical emergency.

Disparity in response times

The larger battalion districts, which is how the SFFD divides up The City for coverage, have slower response times than the smaller districts. One reason is that the number of fire engines in the larger districts is about the same as the smaller districts, even though there’s more physical space to cover.

Battalion district Response time* Number of fire engines in district
1    4 minutes 20 seconds    4
2    4 minutes 16 seconds    5
3    4 minutes 44 seconds    4
4    4 minutes 3 seconds    4
5    4 minutes 24 seconds    0
6    4 minutes 41 seconds    5
7    4 minutes 50 seconds    5
8    5 minutes 13 seconds    5
9    5 minutes 30 seconds    4
10    5 minutes 1 second    6

* Times are average for June to August
** One engine is stationed on Treasure Island

Source: Fire Department

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