Sometimes big investigations raise as many questions as they answer.

Our recent investigation on San Diego’s long emergency response times left you with a lot of questions. That’s a good thing.

We know that first responders arrive late citywide to high-priority emergencies an average of twice an hour every day. We know the greatest risk for delayed responses lies in some of the city’s poorest and brownest neighborhoods.

Here are some answers to some of the best questions we’ve received so far on emergency response delays.

What Does ‘Response Time’ Even Mean?

First responders in San Diego aim to arrive at an emergency within seven minutes and 30 seconds. But when does that response time clock start and when does it end?

The Fire-Rescue Department begins counting when it’s first notified of the call, and stops when the first unit arrives at the scene. The stat includes the time for the 911 dispatcher to figure out the type of emergency and where it’s located, a fire crew to jump on board an engine and the travel time.


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The response time stats are not perfect. Here’s what happens when you call 911:

Graphic by Amy Krone. Source: City of San Diego.
Graphic by Amy Krone. Source: City of San Diego.


The San Diego Police Department receives 911 calls first, and transfers medical calls to the Fire-Rescue Department. Eighty-seven percent of Fire-Rescue dispatches are for medical calls.

The time for the Police Department to transfer the call to the Fire Department is not included in the response time figures.

This transfer can be simple, but not always. In the triple shooting that killed Rickquese McCoy in 2012, the Police Department knew about the incident for about three minutes before it notified the Fire Department.

Response times also measure when emergency medical personnel arrive at the scene, not when they start treating a patient. In large apartment complexes, for instance, it can take a long time for paramedics to get to someone who needs help after they arrive on scene. Jim Dunford, the city’s emergency medical director, said the city is looking for a way to measure better the time it takes to actually treat a patient.

How Do We Know the Greatest Risk for a Long Response Occurs in Poor Neighborhoods?

Five neighborhoods within 9 ½ square miles south and east of downtown have the highest risk for a delayed response: the area around Home Avenue in City Heights, Paradise Hills, College Area, Skyline and Encanto.

The ranking comes from a 2011 study done by Folsom, Calif.-based consultant Citygate Associates. Citygate developed its list of neighborhoods with the highest risk based primarily on four factors:

1. The current fire station areas with the most simultaneous incidents

2. The busiest individual fire engine companies

3. The current fire station areas where fire crews had to go outside their areas most frequently

4. The distance between existing stations

Building new fire stations in these five neighborhoods, the consultant concluded, would improve service to almost 60,000 residents, who also happen to be some of the city’s poorest and brownest.

“We don’t look at income, we don’t look at race, we don’t look at where the council districts are,” Stewart Gary, the consultant who wrote the study, told me. “If any one council district has more or fewer higher- or lower-priority fire station [addresses], that is totally by accident. I put the blinders on.”

I Live Near a Fire Station. Why Are There Late Responses Near Me?

First responders missed their response time goal for high-priority incidents more than 37,000 times over the nearly two-year period we analyzed. If you look at our interactive map documenting those incidents, you’ll likely find at least one near you. The incidents might occur near fire stations because fire crews could be out of the station responding to other problems when more calls come in.

What Does the Fire-Rescue Department Have to Say About All This?

We spoke with the Fire-Rescue Department about our research extensively, including a more than hour-long interview to go over our findings.

The department agreed that more help would have arrived more quickly to the McCoy shooting had there been a fire station a half-mile away and its fire crews were in-house. The department also says first responders cannot meet their 7:30 response time goal without more resources.

Does CPR Matter?

It’s a double whammy that the communities with the greatest risk for a long emergency response time also have some of the lowest rates of people who know CPR, according to Dunford.

The importance of CPR cannot be overstated. Dunford did a study in 2005 on cardiac arrest survival rates in San Diego. For emergency responses longer than four minutes to cardiac arrest calls, CPR gave people a chance to survive.

No one who didn’t receive CPR and waited longer than four minutes lived.

Are There Cheaper Ways to Address This Problem Than Building Brand New Fire Stations?

New fire stations are expensive. All together the five top-priority stations are projected to cost $49 million, including a year of staffing costs.

The Citygate report identified certain areas that should receive “Fast Response Squads” rather than full fire stations. These are two-person teams operating out of a storefront/SUV for medical calls and initial fire suppression. A Fast Response Squad, rather than a full fire house, is recommended for the Encanto station.

The squads are projected to cost $1 million a year each, and the city’s already negotiated with the fire union for how they would work. The city just hasn’t funded them.

The department also recently started sending a fire engine to medical calls immediately instead of waiting for the 911 operator first to triage the call to see if one’s needed. If the dispatcher later determines the engine isn’t warranted, then the crew is canceled. This change came after a city auditor recommendation. It’s projected to shave as much as one minute off response times and doesn’t cost a dime to implement.

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    This article relates to: Community, Emergency Response Times, Government, Neighborhoods, News, Share

    Written by Liam Dillon

    Liam Dillon is senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He leads VOSD’s investigations and writes about how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next? Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

    25 comments
    Allen Hemphill
    Allen Hemphill subscribermember

    Bill, focus, please. The Ambulance follows the motorcycle. The cycle gets there first and stops the bleeding (that only takes one person), or the single cyclist can defibrillate. Seconds count. No, I don't expect to teach 44 year old to ride a BMW, but somehow the police train their people. I see them daily.. .

    Barry Pollard
    Barry Pollard

    “We don’t look at income, we don’t look at race, we don’t look at where the council districts are,” Stewart Gary, the consultant who wrote the study, told me. “If any one council district has more or fewer higher- or lower-priority fire station [addresses], that is totally by accident. I put the blinders on.” Give me a break, did you really think Mr.Gary would answer any other way? Let me get this straight, communities with the biggest safety issues are receiving the worst service? Liam, I am surprised you let him off the hook so easily. ESP. When you look at other "coincidences" how many African Americans are in leadership within the FD or EMT?what percentage of firefighters and/or EMT's are AA? There are other "coincidences" like in a fire in SE San Diego are the personal properties of the fire victim handled the same way as in other parts of the city,I know the answer to that one). I find it hard to believe there are "...blinders on..." Too much of a coincidence....top 5, really?

    Liam Dillon
    Liam Dillon

    Hi Barry- Thanks, as always, for commenting. I think you're misunderstanding the context of that quote. Gary's point was that when analyzing existing fire services he didn't take into account race, income, location, etc. That means an objective analysis based on his criteria proved a need in those five communities that happen to be very near each other. In other words, Gary's not saying that race/income don't matter. He's saying that an analysis that didn't take into account race/income found a need that was localized to an area that also happens to be majority-minority and poorer. I plan to follow up with story about the reasons for this cluster of need.

    Barry Pollard
    Barry Pollard subscriber

    “We don’t look at income, we don’t look at race, we don’t look at where the council districts are,” Stewart Gary, the consultant who wrote the study, told me. “If any one council district has more or fewer higher- or lower-priority fire station [addresses], that is totally by accident. I put the blinders on.” Give me a break, did you really think Mr.Gary would answer any other way? Let me get this straight, communities with the biggest safety issues are receiving the worst service? Liam, I am surprised you let him off the hook so easily. ESP. When you look at other "coincidences" how many African Americans are in leadership within the FD or EMT?what percentage of firefighters and/or EMT's are AA? There are other "coincidences" like in a fire in SE San Diego are the personal properties of the fire victim handled the same way as in other parts of the city,I know the answer to that one). I find it hard to believe there are "...blinders on..." Too much of a coincidence....top 5, really?

    Liam Dillon
    Liam Dillon memberadministrator

    Hi Barry- Thanks, as always, for commenting. I think you're misunderstanding the context of that quote. Gary's point was that when analyzing existing fire services he didn't take into account race, income, location, etc. That means an objective analysis based on his criteria proved a need in those five communities that happen to be very near each other. In other words, Gary's not saying that race/income don't matter. He's saying that an analysis that didn't take into account race/income found a need that was localized to an area that also happens to be majority-minority and poorer. I plan to follow up with story about the reasons for this cluster of need.

    Allen Hemphill
    Allen Hemphill subscribermember

    I suspect that more than one Paramedic in San Diego County rides a cycle to work. I note Police on them constantly, so if they can, you can. Follow the cycle with an ambulance if you must, but there is no question that a cycle can launch and cut through traffic faster than anything else.

    Allen Hemphill
    Allen Hemphill

    Please check "Response Time." In my Cal Fire District, it is measured "Wheels Roll, until Wheels Stop," which excludes phone call, dress time, engine warm and at the other end, time into the home and equipment setup. San Diego County has many jurisdictions, and times may be measured differently. In view of the prevalence of medical response over fires, why each station does not have a Paramedic with defibrillator equipment, sitting on a motorcycle, is beyond my comprehension.

    Bill Waugaman
    Bill Waugaman

    Mr Hemphill, you asked me to "focus", and that compelled me to do some research into why motorcycle EMS has not taken strong root in this country. Motorborne EMS has strong roots in Europe, Australia and Eastern Europe, where the traffic patters and urban congestion have precluded ambulances from getting to patients in dire times of need. Seeing this pattern in our urban populations has challenged providers to also implement such programs. Daytona Beach, Miami-Dade Fire and Austin, Tx have tried and successfully executed this program, but expensive training and equipment costs made it ripe for cuts. Miami's program was cut and Daytona & Austin are used for special events only. The City of Pittsburgh has a EMS motor unit that operates at special events, but can only be used during certain times of the year for the obvious. I will concede that getting to the scene may be quite faster in certain times of the day, but most PD motor units do not operate in inclement weather here in SoCal, nor do they operate at night. We don't shut down units due to darkness. So, with the knowledge of the start-up costs, staffing issues and the ability for it to be cut when "stuff happens", this program would not survive the line item audits. As with the horse mounted unit of SDPD, once it's gone, it's not coming back. Focused on the subject, yes.

    Bill Waugaman
    Bill Waugaman

    Additionally, Mr Hemphill, I have a hard time grasping the fact that you would rather have a Paramedic who can efficiently operate a motorcycle than be able to provide a higher standard of care when it's needed. Hmmmmm

    Allen Hemphill
    Allen Hemphill

    Bill, focus, please. The Ambulance follows the motorcycle. The cycle gets there first and stops the bleeding (that only takes one person), or the single cyclist can defibrillate. Seconds count. No, I don't expect to teach 44 year old to ride a BMW, but somehow the police train their people. I see them daily.. .

    Bill Waugaman
    Bill Waugaman

    Alan, it's not tradition that keeps me off a bike, it's the fact that the roads in San Diego, and/or Southern California are extremely dangerous for motorcycles. The consequences? You ride on the I-15 in the morning? The Marine Corps lost more Marines in one month in SoCal than Iraq to car/object vs motorcycles. Besides it takes two for a CPR and to get major treatments downrange, not Harleys/BMW's/Kawasakis.

    Bill Waugaman
    Bill Waugaman

    OK, so you're going to teach this 44 y/old former Marine how to ride a motorcycle?? Don't get me wrong I love motorcycles, but getting whacked by some kid texting is not worth getting medically retired off the job. But if I follow an ambulance, why have the bike then? Have you executed such moves and what is your riding experience, Finally, from what basis do you draw this "conclusion"?

    Allen Hemphill
    Allen Hemphill

    I suspect that more than one Paramedic in San Diego County rides a cycle to work. I note Police on them constantly, so if they can, you can. Follow the cycle with an ambulance if you must, but there is no question that a cycle can launch and cut through traffic faster than anything else.

    Allen Hemphill
    Allen Hemphill

    Bill, your answer demonstrates more concern for having Paramedics learn to ride motorcycles than for the poor guy gasping for breath as he suffers a heart attack. Firemen somehow learned to drive trucks, but I'll bet they scoffed at giving up horse-drawn carriages. Change is hard. Last I heard, four minutes was the time for a heart attack patient with a major heart attack -- after which you should bring a white sheet. It's the old story, "when seconds count, the (fire department)(police) are just minutes away. Seconds count. Don't let tradition hold you back. Think of the consequencies.

    Bill Waugaman
    Bill Waugaman

    Because we don't ride motorcycles, Alan. Would you ride a bicycle on our streets, let alone a motorcycle? People can't see the Engine at a stoplight let alone a bike. C'mon.

    Allen Hemphill
    Allen Hemphill subscribermember

    Please check "Response Time." In my Cal Fire District, it is measured "Wheels Roll, until Wheels Stop," which excludes phone call, dress time, engine warm and at the other end, time into the home and equipment setup. San Diego County has many jurisdictions, and times may be measured differently. In view of the prevalence of medical response over fires, why each station does not have a Paramedic with defibrillator equipment, sitting on a motorcycle, is beyond my comprehension.

    David Hall
    David Hall subscriber

    EMTs on motorcycles? LOL!

    Allen Hemphill
    Allen Hemphill subscribermember

    Bill, your answer demonstrates more concern for having Paramedics learn to ride motorcycles than for the poor guy gasping for breath as he suffers a heart attack. Firemen somehow learned to drive trucks, but I'll bet they scoffed at giving up horse-drawn carriages. Change is hard. Last I heard, four minutes was the time for a heart attack patient with a major heart attack -- after which you should bring a white sheet. It's the old story, "when seconds count, the (fire department)(police) are just minutes away. Seconds count. Don't let tradition hold you back. Think of the consequencies.

    Michael Robertson
    Michael Robertson

    I did quick math and it appears that 2% of a emergency calls that fireman respond to actually involve an actual fire. To be fair another 5.5% are some type of false alarm. This means 92%+ of calls that fireman respond to don't involve a fire or even a suspected fire. That's just uneconomical. We should close some firehouses and replace them with more economical and prevalent paramedics. Citizens would get faster response time and save huge money.

    Bill Waugaman
    Bill Waugaman

    Michael, as a city firefighter, I can answer your questions. I am at a busy station that has an ambulance at it and never see them during the day. Rarely do I run with the Medic Unit out of my firehouse, in my 1st due. That being said, I have had long times on-scene waiting for a transport unit coming from another part of the city With such waits, care of the injured person is not being delayed by having the Engine or Truck co there with their Paramedic providing treatment. Closing firehouses would delay medical care and increase response time for fire incidents. Cutting is not always the right thing to do. Just ask Detroit how that's working out.

    Michael Robertson
    Michael Robertson subscribermember

    I did quick math and it appears that 2% of a emergency calls that fireman respond to actually involve an actual fire. To be fair another 5.5% are some type of false alarm. This means 92%+ of calls that fireman respond to don't involve a fire or even a suspected fire. That's just uneconomical. We should close some firehouses and replace them with more economical and prevalent paramedics. Citizens would get faster response time and save huge money.

    Michael Robertson
    Michael Robertson

    Why do we send fire trucks to medical emergencies. That's just retarded. Fire related calls are rare. Gramps have chest pains, Uncle Lou tumbling getting out of the tub don't need a ladder truck with 500 gallons of water. We should stop letting the fire department hold emergency response hostage and extorting huge salaries and pensions from citizens to give lightweight medical treatment and transport people to a hospital.

    Bill Waugaman
    Bill Waugaman

    Michael, EMS in the city was a private/public partnership up to last year with Rural/Metro Corporation. Since then Rural Metro has sole charge over billing and costs, not the city. This was private/public, but no more. I make sure the citizens of my district get the best care possible and are treated as if they are a member of my family. There is no "lightweight" treatment, and challenge you to do a rideout and see what is going on in front of you. If you feel that San Diego Fire Rescue is doing it wrong, be part of the solution, not a problem. Go to your closest fire station and talk to the crews and ask the hard questions. Call your councilmember and voice your concerns before the PS&NS committee.

    Michael Robertson
    Michael Robertson subscribermember

    Why do we send fire trucks to medical emergencies. That's just retarded. Fire related calls are rare. Gramps have chest pains, Uncle Lou tumbling getting out of the tub don't need a ladder truck with 500 gallons of water. We should stop letting the fire department hold emergency response hostage and extorting huge salaries and pensions from citizens to give lightweight medical treatment and transport people to a hospital.