SAN JOSE -- The San Jose Fire Department has likely missed its response-time targets more often than previously reported due to a data collection error, but officials would not speculate Thursday what the actual figures might show.
Chief William McDonald had alerted the mayor and City Council in a memorandum three weeks ago that there was a problem with the response time reporting, a key performance measure used to gauge how quickly firefighters arrive after an emergency call.
But at a public safety committee meeting Thursday, fire officials who explained how the data error occurred would not say what the actual response times might be.
"I'm not going to speculate," said Deputy Chief Gaudenz Panholzer, adding that the department expects to collect correct data going forward, but that comparisons with past years may prove difficult.
The response-time issue has become a political hot-potato after years of Fire Department cutbacks as the city struggled to close budget deficits driven by a sharp rise in employee retirement costs. Firefighters accused city leaders of jeopardizing public safety with budget cuts while city leaders argued the cuts stemmed from benefit increases the city couldn't afford.
Robert Sapien, president of the San Jose Firefighters union, said the city should disclose the response time figures that show the consequences of staffing cuts.
"The true data is readily available and the city must make it a priority to disclose this critical information," Sapien said. "Reduced staffing has increased emergency response times."
No one made a political case of the response times at Thursday's meeting. But Councilman Pete Constant, the committee chairman, called it "unfortunate that some organizations have tried to politicize this thing." He said the notion that fire administrators manipulated response time figures to somehow "screw the public" is "false."
The city Fire Department's response time goal is for firefighters to arrive within 8 minutes of a call 80 percent of the time. McDonald acknowledged that the national standard actually is 6 minutes 90 percent of the time.
Panholzer explained that the response time reporting flaw arose with the department's switch to an electronic data management system in 2008. One of the problems is that data were collected for the "first due" engine rather than the "first arriving" unit.
Panholzer said the data collection error didn't change actual response times or affect decisions on which fire stations to close but did affect how those closures were evaluated.
"The response time fell in those areas," Panholzer said. "But we don't know how much."
Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/johnwoolfolk1.