By Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese.
Seconds count. That’s the undisputed truth when residents are confronted with an emergency and call 911. They need a firefighter, paramedic, police officer or sheriff as fast as possible. Period.
It’s local government’s job to ensure that first responders have every tool necessary to get to emergencies quickly.
Specifically, Santa Clara County has contracts with local fire departments requiring them to respond in eight minutes for 90 percent of emergency medical calls. When the standard is met, they receive a first responder fee from the county.
Unfortunately, San Jose failed to meet that standard for over a year and a half, despite multiple notices and improvement promises. In response, I voted on a recommendation by Supervisor Joe Simitian to delay, not cut, first responder fees until San Jose improves emergency response times. Once that improves, they get the money.
I agree that no one should blame San Jose firefighters. As Mayor Chuck Reed recently said, they’re being asked to do more with much less.
The Board of Supervisors is responsible for holding agencies accountable for meeting contractual obligations when it comes to emergency medical responses. When the county’s ambulance provider, Rural/Metro, missed its obligation on 10 calls out of 2,701 in late 2012, the Board of Supervisors acted swiftly.
We demanded a detailed staffing plan to immediately rectify the problem and improve responses or we would terminate their contract. It was a swift and strong response for falling short. It worked, as Rural/Metro has met its response time targets since.
San Jose now acknowledges that its response time deficiencies are not limited to just medical calls but to fire and other emergencies as well. It’s time to rethink how fire services are provided to the public, but not by putting firefighters on motorcycles, as Reed suggests. It’s time to do what companies do in the business world: innovate, consolidate and streamline.
We can improve service, reduce response times and costs while increasing efficiency by combining elements of the city and county fire department functions within the county, including those of San Jose.
We can maximize the use of personnel, stations and equipment each entity deploys to improve emergency response times. We can eliminate redundant administrative and management functions. We can standardize communications equipment and response protocols and use one training academy for new firefighters. If done correctly and collaboratively, consolidating fire services will equal more investment in front-line fire services resulting in improved response times at less cost to taxpayers.
In 2011, when San Jose’s City Council cut seven firefighter companies, laying off 49 firefighters, as president of the Board of Supervisors I asked the county fire chief and county executive to study the regionalization of fire services so we could ensure that every resident of the county — including those in San Jose — would receive the emergency response they need and deserve.
I met with Reed in early 2011 and asked him to consider this consolidation combined with legally transitioning the current city firefighters to a pension plan that was less costly to taxpayers but still competitive with surrounding jurisdictions. This consolidation would save tens of millions of dollars, immediately.
At that time, the mayor was not interested. Given recent revelations about response times, I now hope he has an open mind.
Consolidating elements of fire service makes sense. If we can come together and put territorial issues aside, it could become a reality. If we work quickly and cooperatively, we can ensure that a firefighter or paramedic is on the scene when seconds really do count.
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Dave Cortese is a Santa Clara County supervisor and a candidate for mayor of San Jose. This piece was originally published in the San Jose Mercury News.