S.F. supervisor: Fire department puts public safety at risk

Supervisor London Breed will stop short of calling for Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White's resignation


San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO — Supervisor London Breed will announce Tuesday that she has lost confidence in the leadership of the San Francisco Fire Department, saying its inability to get ambulances to medical emergencies quickly is putting public safety at risk. She also wants a change to city law that would require minimum standards for emergency medical services.

The supervisor, a former member of the city's fire commission, will stop short of calling for Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White's resignation. But Breed said she plans to draft a charter amendment, which would have to be approved by voters, requiring the department to maintain minimum levels of ambulance staffing and working equipment.

The city's five-member Fire Commission appoints the chief. The mayor appoints the commission and consults on hiring decisions.

Hayes-White called the proposal "a little disappointing," noting that she has been working closely with the mayor's office to tackle the city's ambulance problems. She said she doesn't take the criticism of her leadership personally.

"I respect her work as commissioner and supervisor, but particularly since she does have that history, she of all people should realize there are many layers of complexity in the entire system," Hayes-White said.

The Fire Department has increasingly struggled to get ambulances to medical emergencies to transport patients to the hospital, an issue that has been detailed in several city reports this year. While fire trucks with at least one paramedic on board respond to all 911 calls within minutes to administer medical care, patients are regularly waiting for long periods for an ambulance to arrive - it happened 2,500 times in 2013, a fourfold increase since 2008 and 25 percent jump over 2012.

In August, according to data presented to the Fire Commission last month, there were more than 374 incidents where it took more than 20 minutes for an ambulance to arrive at a call - including nine cases where it took more than an hour.

"When you call 911, help is supposed to be on the way," Breed said. "This is not about blaming one individual, but the buck stops at who's in charge. ... It's clear that (Hayes-White is) not providing the level of public safety necessary to keep San Franciscans safe, and the evidence is in the numbers, in the response times, in the reports. This is not a new issue."

The problem is driven by a lack of proper staffing and equipment, according to a June report by the Board of Supervisors' budget and legislative analyst that determined the department needs 16 more medics and that more than half of its ambulance fleet is ready to be retired.

The report found that the Fire Department has been given enough money to buy 16 ambulances since 2012, but "not even one of these 16 ambulances has been purchased to date." Hayes-White and other department officials said at the time that they expect to have the ambulances by year's end.

Hayes-White said she asked the mayor's office for 42 new medics in this year's budget but only secured funding for 16.

She invited Breed to join a newly established working group, convened by the mayor's office to tackle the issue.

"I'm pretty optimistic about this working group. ... Everyone is in agreement that we have a problem, and we want to solve it," she said. "Supervisor Breed is welcome to sit at the table."

Breed said the ambulance problem is her most pressing concern but that her doubts about Hayes-White's leadership reach beyond a single issue, noting that the agency has been involved in numerous scandals since the chief's 2004 appointment.

Drug and alcohol use have been a problem at the agency since before Hayes-White took over, with years of allegations that on-duty drinking was tolerated. In September 2005, nearly two years after her appointment, the department started randomly testing firefighters for drug and alcohol use.

Earlier this month, the head of the agency's homeland security and special operations division was stripped of his post after he was accused of running into another car in his department-issued sedan, then fleeing the accident with his emergency lights on.

In May, two assistant chiefs were suspended for their handling of a 2013 incident in which an allegedly drunken firefighter struck a motorcyclist and left the scene before being tested for intoxication.

In August, the family of a 16-year-old girl who died right after last year's Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco International Airport sued the city, following the San Mateo County coroner's conclusion that the girl, Ye Meng Yuan, was still alive when she was sprayed with flame-retardant foam and run over by two Fire Department vehicles.

Hayes-White is the department's first female chief. A San Francisco native, she joined the department in 1990.

Copyright 2014 San Francisco Chronicle
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