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Probe Says Ambulance Arrival Times Altered

June 20, 1987|JANNY SCOTT | Times Staff Writer

A supervisor for the firm that provides San Diego's paramedic services repeatedly falsified computer records to make it appear that ambulance response times fell within city guidelines during his shift, a city investigation has found.

The investigation concluded that a Hartson Medical Services employee, who has not been identified, altered ambulance arrival times in 12 cases during a six-week period in February and March. A total of 4,200 calls were logged during that period.

"The Hartson employee was driven by his ambition to keep his watch times within the allotted times," Deputy City Manager Coleman Conrad wrote in a memo presented Thursday to the City Council. "Financially and professionally, he had nothing to gain. He used poor judgment and was demoted and transferred."

Preventive Measures

Both Conrad and Hartson executive Philip Ayres said they had no reason to think that fudging had occurred on other occasions. They said the city's computer system was programmed to flag alterations, making it impossible to get away with falsification for long.

In addition, Conrad said the city's Fire Department, which operates the computer, has modified the program in order to limit access. From now on, he said, only the watch captain will be able to make changes in the records.

The employee was suspended for a week. He was then demoted from the position of supervisor and transferred out of the city's communications center to serve as a dispatcher in a communications center for the county.

The falsification came to light earlier this year during one of the city's routine audits of ambulance response times. Under Hartson's $3.6-million annual contract, the firm is expected to answer 93% of all calls within 10 minutes.

The auditors discovered that on a dozen occasions, arrival times had been changed to bring the response times within the limit. A total of 18 minutes had been shaved off the 12 calls, for which Hartson has paid the city fines amounting to $220, Ayres said.

"Why it would happen is beyond me," Ayres said. "How it happened, apparently one of the system's status controllers felt either ambitious or competitive and wanted to have his shift look better than some other shift, and independently acted on a couple of calls."

Ayres said the firm's so-called performance-based contract emphasizes the importance of meeting the 10-minute limit. "So if you are able to do that in a faster and better fashion, you are looked upon apparently more favorably by your peers," he said.

Ayres and city officials could not explain why an employee would change the numbers knowing that the computer was programmed to flag all alterations. However, the computer had been set up so that it did not indicate who made the alteration.

Conrad concluded in his memorandum that Hartson's management team was not involved in the fudging. He noted that the firm investigated immediately when the city pointed out the discrepancy.

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