San Jose Fire Department's Response Times Under Scrutiny

Show up faster or we'll cut your funding.

That's the stern message the Santa Clara County supervisors are giving to the San Jose Fire Department, which has failed to meet response-time expectations.

The county pays the fire department a bonus to respond quickly, and in one out of seven times firefighters are not delivering.

"The last six months we've seen from San Jose are the worst six months we've seen," Supervisor Joe Simitian said.

Simitian said the fire department is in breach of its contract with the county, which requires firefighters to respond to Code-3 911 "lights and sirens calls" within 8 minutes 90 percent of the time.

Comparing stats for the month of January, the fire department exceeded that goal in 2010, 2011 and 2012. But between September of 2012 and June of last year, the department only met the goal an average of 88.1 percent of the time.

"If you're in San Jose 500 to 600 times a month, somebody's going to get there late," Simitian said. "And if you're a stroke victim or a heart-attack victim, that's the difference between life and death."

The county in response is threatening to yank $2.1 million in incentive pay for firefighters. It won't break the agency's $164 million budget, but Simitian hopes it'll be enough to make a point.

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"We have a system that's designed to reward and encourage on-time performance and it appears to be having the adverse effect because San Jose's numbers are the worse ever over the last six months," Simitian said.

The fire department has lost personnel and equipment to budget cuts. But there may be another issue in the numbers as well.

In a letter from January 2013, then-Chief William McDonald told the city council that the department had been inconsistent in calculating response time as far back as 2009, excluding calls that took crews out of their coverage areas. Those calls may have dropped response times further.

"I wouldn't necessarily say there was a mistake," San Jose Fire Department Capt. Cleo Doss said. "I think we just calculated it a way that didn't give us numbers that were accurate or that we could stand by."

The department is still working to come up with a system the city and the county can agree on.

"The city has made decisions based on politics and not on data and now the data is catching up to them," said Robert Sapien, who heads the San Jose Firefighters Association. "And we're finding the city is grossly ineffective in delivering on their promise."

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