SF to hire temporary paramedics to cover ambulance shifts

To help fix problems with ambulance response times, The City will hire on-call paramedics to staff the vehicles while waiting for new Fire Department ambulances to be purchased and more SFFD paramedics to be trained.

Plummeting response times — including one infamous two-hour wait for an ambulance over Labor Day weekend — has led to criticism for Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White from both City Hall elected officials and rank-and-file firefighters.

And response times for Code 3 calls, the most serious emergencies, are still slower than desired, according to a December memo from the Mayor's Office.

Ambulances are supposed to arrive within 10 minutes for Code 3 incidents and within 20 minutes for lower-priority Code 2 calls 90 percent of the time. But through the end of November, ambulances were arriving within an average of 12.74 minutes and 20.37 minutes, respectively, according to the memo.

An aging fleet of Fire Department ambulances, many of which are past their normal service life, as well as a shortage of qualified paramedics to staff what vehicles can be put on the streets, contributed to the below-target response times, the memo states.

There are about 22 to 24 ambulances on the streets at any given time in San Francisco, including eight privately owned vehicles.

Those vehicles could soon be joined by 19 new ambulances recently purchased by The City. Ten new ambulances are already in hand, with the rest due by the end of February.

The per-diem paramedics to help staff the new fleet would be able to start work at the earliest in April or May, city officials note.

April would be the first time that any shifts could be “reassigned,” as Fire Department shifts are scheduled six months in advance, according to a memo to members of an Ambulance Working Group convened by Mayor Ed Lee.

While ambulance response times have improved overall since the summer, some problems remain.

Per protocol, most medical emergency calls in The City receive a response from a fire engine or ladder truck, with an ambulance to follow. But in one recent incident, a fire engine crew responding to a 911 call waited almost an hour and a half for an ambulance, a Fire Department source told The San Francisco Examiner.

Firefighter employee groups say a lack of spending on equipment and an emphasis on using overtime to fill shifts rather than hiring new firefighters led to the current response time troubles.

More than 81 percent of firefighters cast votes of no confidence in Hayes-White's leadership in December, but so far the chief has survived the controversy with support from the mayor, the only city official with the power to remove her.

Newly elected Board of Supervisors President London Breed has been the fire chief's most vocal critic but has yet to speak out on the issue since assuming her new role.

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