SAN JOSE -- Santa Clara County supervisors slapped the San Jose Fire Department with big penalties for its 911 medical response times, which have been so slow that crews have been showing up late to emergencies about once per hour over the last year.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously voted to pull funding from the Fire Department but offered it a chance to shape up and get the money back.

The city gets about $2.1 million in county funding per year, which is equivalent to the operation of one fire station. But the money is contingent on crews responding to at least 90 percent of emergencies within eight minutes, a mark the department has failed to meet for 14 straight months.

The money will be cut off starting with about $700,000 that was due from four months last year, and placed in a trust fund. If the city meets the 90 percent target for three straight months and submits an improvement plan, the city will get the money back as long as it doesn't start to slip again.

"That might provide the incentive that's necessary to get the city to perform," said county Supervisor Joe Simitian, who has led the charge on the issue. "There's a point at which you say, 'We just can't let this go on a little longer.' "

San Jose officials declined to show up and defend themselves at the meeting for the second time in as many months, which dismayed county leaders to the point where they considered pulling the contract with the city altogether. That would lead county ambulances to respond to medical emergencies first instead of San Jose firefighters, an option the county will now begin studying.


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"The silence from the city just is deafening," said county Supervisor Ken Yeager. "I don't have a lot of confidence that the city of San Jose is going to be able to meet the minimum requirement anytime soon. I don't know how that could happen."

In written responses before the meeting, the Fire Department said it's seeking additional funds to hire more crews and prevent engine brownouts and is hiring a firm to implement a new traffic system that would more effectively allow emergency vehicles to navigate crowded streets.

They're also sending far fewer trucks to homes, freeing up more resources for medical calls. When a fire alarm goes off in a residential building, only one truck will respond — down from four before, while alarms that ring at "dangerous" buildings will merit two trucks instead of five.

But it's unclear if the city has the money to fund these efforts, or whether the smaller response to home fire alarms could be dangerous.

After San Jose initially met the county's performance standards when the new five-year county ambulance contract took effect in 2011, it hasn't met the 911 response time target for a single month since summer 2012. By comparison, no other department in the county has fallen short of the eight-minute mark for even one month.

In the first six months of last year, San Jose fire crews responded to medical emergencies within 8 minutes only 88 percent of the time. The rest of the county fire departments under contract — from Mountain View to Gilroy -- met the response time target a combined average of 97 percent.

Even then, San Jose fire officials have since conceded that they incorrectly reported their data during the last year and a half and were actually about 1 percent to 3 percent slower than first thought. The result has been crews showing up late to emergencies about once per hour over the past year.

San Jose over the last half-decade has trimmed its staff by about two dozen firefighters to deal with budget cuts even as the number of medical emergencies it's responded to has shot up 36 percent, to 55,000 a year. City officials blamed the cuts on soaring costs for employee benefits, especially retirement which tripled over a decade and continues to rise.

Like all fire departments in the county except Palo Alto, the county reimburses San Jose when its firefighters respond to emergencies first, within 8 minutes, to stabilize patients before county ambulances arrive later, typically within 12 minutes. But the $2.1 million in annual county funding it receives represents only about 1 percent of the Fire Department's yearly operating budget.

Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/rosenbergmerc.