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Response Time: The Difference Between Life and Death

The lives of millions Angelinos depend on the county Fire Department, but their equipment is old and their staff is insufficient.

LA COUNTY – Every time there is a fire, natural disaster, or accident in one of 58 los Angeles Countycities —and unincorporated areas—LA County firefighters and paramedics must respond within 5 minutes.

“Time is of the essence” LA county chief fireman Daryl Osby said on Thursday.

Last year, the professionals of this department had one of their biggest challenges: responding to the largest blaze in the history of the county: The Wolsey Fire, which began in Ventura county, spread to Los Angeles and headed towards the sea.

By the time it was over, three people died, and 1400 buildings were burned down. But rarely is the emphasis placed on what was saved: 50,000 threatened buildings survived as did tens of thousands of evacuees. Much of that can be attributed to the work of county firefighters.

Today, however, the department that serves more than 4 million people is in crisis: most of its fire teams have 3 staffers instead of the 4 recommended by experts, many of their trucks and rescue vehicles are 20 years or older and its communication systems are three decades old and incompatible with today’s digital and wireless systems.

“We haven’t asked the public for help in renovating our equipment for 20 years,” Osby said. “Our budget today is only enough for wages and the purchase of supplies to do our job. We need help.”

Part of the reason of the deficiency is the increase in the county’s population and the existence of various challenges, from the opioid epidemic to homelessness and the proliferation of ever larger and dangerous fires linked to climate change. However, most of the calls this department responds to, when a person calls 911 from one of the 59 cities or service areas, corresponds to a medical emergency.

“We’ve had a 50% increase in calls in the last 5 years,” Captain Chad Sourbeer said. “Do you want to know how many new emergency units we’ve added in those years? One, one unit. This situation is not sustainable.”

This Thursday, Fire Station 14 on the corner of the Normandie and 108th Street in the Athens area of Los Angeles, opened its doors for the public and media to talk to its staff: dispatchers, paramedics and firefighters, who shared the love for their work and the need to maintain the response time and necessary services.

Dispatcher Kristen Smith, one of the voices that heeds the often-desperate calls that come to 911, explained that his calm and efficient voice doesn’t just help deliver the help needed when someone calls with a condition that can be fatal.

“We don’t just tell the person that help is already on the way, we can’t just do that,” Smith said. “When someone calls us in a life-or-death situation we can’t hang up, we have to stay with them until the paramedics arrive, keep them alive, offer help techniques on the phone. We need more dispatchers, more staff, the population continues to grow.”

LA county Fire responds to 400,000 calls each year, Station 14 is one of the busiest in the county, receiving more than 6,000 calls. If calls increase and staff does not, the response time can get longer, or the staff will be stretched and overworked. Eight county firefighters committed suicide in the past eight years.

The equipment is old too. Many fire engines have obsolete pumps and radios that will not be able to get parts next year, because they no longer manufacture them, explained Captain Guadalupe Muñoz. “We need new radios, but now we don’t have the funds and that’s why we want to explain to the public that we need a little help.”

The Department receives its funds from property taxes and contracts with individual cities. LA County Fire does not receive general funding from the county or any of the cities it serves. But annual revenue does not fill the need for equipment and technology renovation, so essential to doing the fire department job.

Captain Sourbeer explained with an anecdote why response time is essential. One day, his team responded to the call of a 15-year-old girl with severe abdominal pains who did not know what was happening to her. Whey they arrived to evaluate her she was in the in the bathroom of her house, got up and gave birth to a premature little girl, who fell to the ground in front of her astonished eyes.

“We picked the little girl up, she fit in my hand, ” said the captain. “I thought she was a still birth, but she started moving. We gave her CPR and took care of her mom, then took both to the emergency room. A week later I received a card from the young woman thanking me for saving her daughter’s life. Imagine what would have happened if we had just been delayed for a few minutes.”

The Los Angeles County Fire Department invites the community to visit its webpage and learn about the department’s status. “We want you to give us your ideas, tell us your needs and what priorities you think we should have,”, he said.

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