Sept. 19 2013 12:00 AM

Performance loophole has council members asking questions

Photo by Joshua Emerson Smith
Ambulance provider Rural/Metro denied a request from city officials Wednesday to remove a contract loophole that has allowed the private company to routinely arrive late, without penalty, to San Diego's most life-threatening 911 calls.
During yesterday's meeting of the City Council's Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, Chairperson Marti Emerald called on 
Rural/Metro to ditch a 15-year-old provision that exempts response-time standards for calls dispatched after 12 ambulances are on the road.

"You heard the concerns over the exemptions in the original contract that dates back to 1997," she said to the company's representative, Michael Simonsen. "Is Rural/Metro willing to wave exemptions that give you an out on some of those response times?"

While Simonsen downplayed the exemptions' effect on Rural/Metro's performance, he wouldn't agree to get rid of the loophole-known as the "system busy" provision-that the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company benefits from.

"I can't commit to you today that we would just waive those," he said. "But I can certainly commit to you that we'll have those discussions."

Without the loophole, Rural/Metro would be in violation of the terms of its contract, according to city Emergency Medical Services documents.

"Quite frankly, there are contract terms in the '97 agreement that continue to today that are not favorable to the city," said San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar, who was also at the meeting.

Rural/Metro is required to show up to the most serious 911 call within 12 minutes 90 percent of the time. Without the exemptions, the company's ambulances arrived within 12 minutes 86.9 percent of the time between April and June, according to the most recent city records. With the exemptions, the company's compliance rate is a shiny 97.3 percent.

The exemption is outdated and would not be included in any new ambulance contract going forward, said EMS Program Manager Alyssa Ross, who tracks Rural/Metro's contract compliance.

"This 'system busy' provision goes back to the day when there were fewer resources and you didn't want to unfairly punish a provider for an unexpected spike," she said. "But now there are so many computer-modeling programs that help you plan for those spikes."

Rather than eliminating the loophole, city leaders have continually said the issue would be addressed in a long-overdue competitive-bidding process for ambulance services.

City officials have been more than willing to put off the issue of the loophole, Simonsen said. 

"The last time we sat with the city there were discussions about that [exemption]. And at the time it was decided, as Alyssa has pointed out, the city decided it would take that up in the pending [request for proposals] and deal with it then."

That idea didn't sit well with everyone.

"We need to revisit the existing contract and hold them to a higher standard," said councilmember Myrtle Cole, who also sits on the public safety committee. "I don't want to wait for an RFP process to address this. This is an issue we need to address now."

Late last year, after the request for proposals process had been held up by former Mayor Jerry Sanders, the city was on the verge of putting its ambulance contract out to bid.

However, then-Mayor Bob Filner again put the bidding process on hold to explore having the San Diego Fire Department respond to 911 emergency calls. The council approved $100,000 in the city's recent budget to study the idea.

With the RFP again in limbo, the City Council had little alternative than to extended Rural/Metro's contract, which expired in June, for another year.

However, if the fire department is allowed to bid on the contract, the RFP must be redrawn since the department helped craft the document.

At the next public-safety committee meeting on Oct. 30, the city will announce whether it will move forward with a new draft RFP process that will accommodate a bid from the fire department, said interim Mayor Todd Gloria's spokesperson, Katie Keach.

And, it will likely fall to the next elected mayor to make the final decision on whether the fire department is allowed to bid.

Write to and follow him on Twitter at @jemersmith.


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