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Dispatch lag slows LAFD call response

Operators on average take far longer than the national standard to send rescuers, a Times analysis shows.

May 18, 2012|Ben Welsh and Robert J. Lopez and Kate Linthicum

When Javier Ortiz collapsed in his backyard in Echo Park, rescuers were stationed in a firehouse just a half-mile away.

But the Los Angeles Fire Department dispatcher who answered the 911 call from Ortiz's daughter took more than 2 1/2 minutes to send the firefighters -- nearly three times longer than a national standard for processing calls for help.

By the time rescuers arrived, more than six minutes had passed since the Fire Department picked up the call, records show.

Ortiz later died, and it is impossible to say whether a faster response would have saved him. But his case illustrates a significant weakness at one of the nation's largest fire agencies: Dispatchers lose precious seconds in hundreds of thousands of calls for medical aid each year.

A Times analysis of more than 1 million dispatches from the department's database found that the Fire Department falls far short of the standard that rescue units be alerted within one minute on 90% of 911 calls. And average call processing time has increased, most notably for medical calls, which account for the overwhelming majority of responses.

Five years ago firefighters were dispatched to medical calls within a minute 38% of time, the analysis found. By 2011, that number dropped to only 15%.

The Times also found that in the more than 250,000 medical dispatches last year, the department took 75% longer, on average, than the national standard.

Seconds are critical in medical emergencies. That is particularly true in cases of cardiac arrest, like the incident involving Ortiz. Potentially irreversible damage can begin after four minutes.

Fire Department officials did not respond to questions about the department's call handling times.

The department has been under attack in recent months. Some City Council members are concerned that the Fire Department's budget has been cut too deeply and 911 responses have been compromised. Fire officials, though, have tried to reassure the city that residents still are receiving high quality emergency service.

City Hall leaders were stunned in March when the department admitted that for years it published statistics showing crews arrived at medical emergencies more quickly than they actually did. Revised department figures showed slower response times, well short of national standards and the department's stated goals.

Figures challenged

But even those numbers were challenged this week by an expert brought in by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who warned that the corrected figures were unreliable and required more scrutiny. Those issues related only to how many minutes and seconds it takes rescuers to arrive on a scene after they receive an alarm from the dispatch center.

But The Times' analysis found another significant shortcoming in what experts say is an equally important performance indicator: The time it takes dispatchers to send firefighters to emergencies.

In addition to falling short of the national standard, the department took a minute longer on average than other departments studied in 2010 for the National Fire Protection Assn., which sets standards for dispatches and response times.

That study examined more than 100,000 medical calls in jurisdictions including Fairfax County, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C., and Florida's Orange County, which includes much of Disney World. It found dispatches on average took 44 seconds.

By comparison, the Fire Department last year averaged about 1 minute and 45 seconds per call, according to The Times analysis.

"Every minute wasted with the dispatcher ripples throughout the entire scene," said Dr. Mickey Eisenberg, medical director of the Emergency Medical Services Division for King County, Wash., who has studied the importance of a fast response.

Standard questions

Fire Department officials declined to answer questions about what might be causing the delays. Firefighters who take calls at the dispatch center must ask multiple questions designed to elicit the nature of the emergency and to determine what type of units should respond. The answers are entered into a computer.

Generally, the dispatcher must enter an answer to every question before sending an alert to rescuers, according to current and former Fire Department dispatch center workers. Thoroughness is a priority and dispatchers are graded on how faithfully they follow the scripted inquiries, they said.

In many instances, soon after taking a call "we know what we need to send," said veteran firefighter and dispatcher Bob Ashley. But he said he has to ask several questions before dispatching emergency units.

Whether the required questioning contributes to delayed dispatches is not clear, although some other agencies say they alert rescuers as soon as callers mention certain key words, such as "heart attack."

Fire Chief Brian Cummings assured the city Fire Commission in March that the Fire Department runs "one of the best performing dispatch centers in the country."

"That processing time is very good," he said.

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