LAFD looks at ways to speed up emergency response times

The audit findings come as Chief Brian Cummings, shown, has struggled to restore confidence in his management of the 3,500-employee Fire Department after officials admitted last year that they overstated response times, making it appear that rescuers arrived more quickly at emergencies than they actually did.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Fire Department officials, facing criticism over slow response times to 911 calls, are considering two new strategies that could get rescuers to the scene of medical emergencies more quickly.

One program, known as “quick launch,” reduced the time it took to get fire units moving by an average of 50 seconds — roughly in half — during a test period in 2006. The experiment allowed dispatchers to send units before fully determining the nature of emergencies, according to internal LAFD documents obtained by The Times.

The test was discontinued because so many rescue units were being dispatched that it created gaps in coverage, department officials said during a Fire Commission meeting Tuesday. “It ties up resources,” Fire Chief Brian Cummings explained to reporters.


But with pressure building to reduce response times, Cummings and the fire commissioners said Tuesday that the department will reexamine the program to see if it can be improved.

The agency also plans to roll out a separate program that would quickly alert paramedics and emergency medical technicians whenever a 911 call is received from their area. The alert would give rescuers a head start on gathering gear and getting into their trucks while dispatchers collect information on the nature of the emergency, according to the commander of the LAFD dispatch center.

The department is struggling to improve its data analysis and trying to reassure the public and elected officials about its emergency response performance. Fire officials have been under scrutiny since March, when they acknowledged that for years they had produced reports that made it appear rescuers were getting to victims faster than they actually were.

Fire commissioners on Tuesday also discussed a study by a special task force that found the department has produced inaccurate response-time data that should not be relied upon. Some of the faulty reports were used by City Council members when they decided to shut down fire engines and ambulances at more than one-fifth of the city’s 106 firehouses.

A Times investigation earlier this year found LAFD’s dispatchers lag well behind national standards that call for rescuers to be sent to those in need in under 60 seconds on 90% of 911 calls. Those findings were confirmed this week in the report from the task force, which was headed by Asst. Chief Patrick Butler and included experts from inside and outside the department.

The quick-launch dispatching experiment was conducted over a four-week period in the summer of 2006. Dispatchers normally ask callers a series of carefully scripted questions to determine the severity of a medical incident. The answers typically must be entered into a computer before firefighters are dispatched.


The pilot program got rescuers rolling earlier in the 911 call-handling process. The 50-second reduction in average dispatching time exceeded officials’ expectations and was “especially encouraging,” according to an internal LAFD study obtained by The Times.

But Asst. Chief Daniel McCarthy, commander of the LAFD dispatch center, said firefighters were being sent to shooting scenes and other potentially dangerous locations not knowing what to expect.

“We put people at risk when we did that,” McCarthy told The Times.

He said the department also will deploy a new dispatching system known as “quick alert.” Rescuers will be notified over loudspeaker and by Teletype as soon as a medical 911 call is received involving their fire station’s service area, speeding up so-called turnout time. Special notification equipment is expected to be installed at fire stations over the next 18 months, McCarthy said.

Last week, The Times reported that waits for medical aid vary dramatically across Los Angeles’ diverse neighborhoods. Residents in many of the city’s most exclusive hillside communities can wait twice as long for rescuers as those living in more densely populated areas in and around downtown, according to the analysis that mapped out more than 1 million dispatches since 2007.

Cummings acknowledged the findings on Tuesday, saying waits for help are longer in areas farther from fire stations.

“It is a matter of geography,” the chief said. “Personally, if I had a serious medical condition, I’d live close to a hospital.”

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FULL COVERAGE: 911 breakdowns at LAFD