SAN JOSE -- About every hour in San Jose, the Fire Department arrives late to a medical emergency, new data show.
For 14 straight months, the San Jose Fire Department has failed to meet a Santa Clara County standard to respond to at least 90 percent of emergencies within eight minutes. No other fire department in the county missed that mark for even one month since the targets took effect in 2011.
County officials didn't cite instances where delay affected a medical case, and suggested rapid responses weren't needed on many calls. But some said that's no excuse and threatened to withhold funding if the city doesn't improve.
"We know that those mere minutes are critical in terms of the outcome and whether or not folks live or die," said county Supervisor Joe Simitian. "We've got a problem here that is very real. And to add insult to injury, we're paying for that problem."
Simitian is leading the charge as the Board of Supervisors this month considers pulling $2.1 million in annual county funding from the San Jose Fire Department for failing to meet the standards laid out in an Emergency Medical Services contract with the county.
But city and even some county officials say that would only make the problem worse. Mayor Chuck Reed said the cuts would amount to losing a station or about a dozen firefighters at a time when the city already can't afford to hire more crews because of rising personnel costs.
"We'd like to be better," he said. But "I don't see how anybody would expect the service to our community to get better if we have $2 million less to work with."
From January through June of last year, San Jose met the 911 response time standard on 88 percent of emergencies, county figures show. By comparison, all other fire departments contracting with the county -- from Mountain View to Gilroy -- met the goal a combined average of 97 percent of the time.
The county data show San Jose fire paramedics last year were four times more likely to arrive past the eight-minute mark than other cities, and missed that target on about 6,700 emergencies over the year. About 95 percent of San Jose emergency calls are for medical service and the remainder are for fires. Figures didn't indicate how late the delayed responses were.
Deputy Fire Chief Juan Diaz blamed San Jose's response-time issues on budget cuts that have led to two dozen fewer firefighters on duty each day, heavier traffic stemming from the growing economy and a rise in low-priority emergency calls as the city's population swells. Medical 911 calls have shot up 36 percent in just five years.
Diaz said the department is now sending fewer trucks to low-priority calls and centralizing training in hopes of freeing up more firefighters, among other measures aimed at speeding responses.
Michael Petrie, the county's EMS director, said not all of the 55,500 emergencies that San Jose firefighters respond to each year require rapid responses.
"Yes, in San Jose sometimes it takes longer to get there than they should but that does not necessarily translate to a dangerous system or anything like that," Petrie said.
The response time performance standards are tied to a deal in which the county pays every fire department in the region except Palo Alto to respond to emergencies first before county ambulances arrive later. Fire departments that reach at least 90 percent of patients in less than eight minutes share a pool of $4.6 million funded by county ambulance provider Rural/Metro, but San Jose has continued to receive its share of the funds anyway.
The firefighters, locked in an ongoing labor battle with San Jose City Hall, said they had no chance to meet their response time requirements because of cutbacks made in recent years.
"City leaders continually tell residents that public safety is their top priority, but this episode clearly shows that those words are empty," union president Robert Sapien said.
The eight-minute response time is an industry standard. San Jose's internal goal is to meet that mark on 80 percent of calls, not 90 percent.
County officials cited a provision in the deal that allows cities to keep getting paid if they show they are trying to improve.
"If we do not pay those funds, we run the risk of sending the entire EMS system into an abyss," said County Executive Jeff Smith.
But when Rural/Metro missed its contract requirement that calls for ambulances to arrive in the second wave of emergency responses within 12 minutes at least 90 percent of the time, it was fined $4.7 million last year. While it's unclear whether the county supervisors will agree to withhold funds from San Jose at their Jan. 28 meeting, Simitian says the city's problem is just as bad.
"I think it would be unconscionable," Simitian said, "to continue looking the other way."
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.
Rate of emergencies responded to within 8 minutes, January 2013 to June 2013
Countywide performance standard: At least 90 percent
Gilroy: 97.8 percent
Milpitas: 97 percent
Morgan Hill: 97.4 percent
Mountain View: 98.6 percent
San Jose: 88.3 percent
Santa Clara: 95.6 percent
Santa Clara County Fire: 95.6 percent
South Santa Clara County Fire: 95.5 percent
Sunnyvale: 97.1 percent
Source: Santa Clara County EMS