For over a decade, as the city's population has grown in times of tight budgets, fire-rescue dispatchers haven't sent fire engines to medical emergencies until determining a situation to be a "Priority One" emergency -- such as heart attacks, strokes, major car crashes.
That approach is now changing.
The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department's latest strategy for responding to emergency medical calls will be with both an ambulance and a fire engine, sent to the scene simultaneously.
"For every minute of response time we can save in very critical medical emergencies," said Fire-Rescue Chief Javier Mainar, "we increase someone's chances of survival by up to 10 percent."
For over a decade, as the city's population has grown in times of tight budgets, fire-rescue dispatchers haven't sent fire engines to medical emergencies until determining a situation to be a "Priority One" emergency.
Now, after an auditor's study, that approach is changing.
"The fire engines typically get there before the ambulances do," Mainar explained in a Monday interview at City Hall. "In addition, for the most serious medical emergencies, it requires two paramedics. There is one on the ambulance, along with an emergency medical technician. And one arrives by fire engine along with three emergency medical technicians."
San Diego's fleet of fire engines outnumbers ambulances by a roughly two-to-one ratio.
A city auditing study shows that on "Priority One" medical calls, engines get to the scene just over a minute faster than the ambulances.
But it's already taken a dispatcher about a minute after sending an ambulance to debrief a caller on how severe a medical emergency is -- to establish a "Priority One."
Eighty-two percent of the time, a fire unit is dispatched after an ambulance -- even in lesser priority situations, because of difficult terrain or rescues where extra help is advisable.
"So we're going to start them both at the same time," Mainar said, and we predict that about 18 percent of the time, we're going to tell the firefighters not to go, they're not needed."
In a report to the City Council's Audit Committee meeting Monday, City Auditor Eduardo Luna said the cost of the fuel and vehicle wear-and-tear involved in dispatching fire rigs, only to send them back to station, would be negligible.
Especially compared to the downside of losing a life.
"This is a perfect example of why we have an independent city auditor look at performance, looking at departments across-the-board," said Councilman Kevin Faulconer, chairman of the Audit Committee "And I give the Fire Department a lot of credit, because Chief Mainar worked very closely with the auditors and said, 'You know what? We should be doing this differently'."
The simultaneous-dispatch approach, endorsed by the Audit Committee and referred to the full Council, eventually will face a required "meet-and-confer" process with Fire-Rescue personnel.
Union leaders warn that the strategy could have an impact the availability of rigs for other calls.
They cite a recent consulting firm's study which concludes that San Diego city needs at least ten more fire stations and associated equipment, anyway.