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911 response slowed by geography, jurisdictions, analysis shows

October 21, 2012 | 11:07 am

In 1979, Los Angeles' city and county fire agencies agreed to link their dispatching operations to save lives and cut costs.

But a Times analysis of more than 1 million LAFD responses over the last five years shows the agency rarely reaches across jurisdictional lines for county help. One result: 911 callers within a quarter-mile of the city border are nearly 50% more likely to wait more than 10 minutes for rescue crews to arrive.

According to national standards embraced by the LAFD, firefighters are supposed to arrive in under six minutes to almost all medical emergencies.

In more than 70,000 medical calls, LAFD sent rescuers to locations where county firehouses were closer, the analysis found. More than 1,300 of those cases were cardiac arrests, where delays of seconds can be critical because irreversible brain damage can begin just four minutes after the heart stops beating.

Fire Commissioner Alan Skobin, who is leading a review of problems with the department's response times, expressed concern about The Times' findings. He said the commission would examine whether the LAFD's dispatch system could be tied into the county's fire rescue network.

"If there's a way to leverage technology to get another unit to the scene, we should be doing that," Skobin said.

For years, other fire agencies across the nation have been pooling resources and using technology to create "automatic aid" dispatching systems that send the nearest emergency units, regardless of jurisdiction. 

That was the goal set in Los Angeles in 1979 when then-LAFD Chief John C. Gerard wrote to the Fire Commission and said that enlisting county assistance near the city border "would improve emergency response times" and "produce significant saving in lives and property."

The departments later signed a formal automatic-aid agreement that called for electronically linking dispatch systems, records show. But the connection was never made, partly because of costs, said county Battalion Chief Jon O'Brien. "It's being mapped out," he said, "but it's nothing that's going to get handled in the short term."

Los Angeles Fire Chief Brian Cummings said he wasn't familiar with the agreement and could not comment on it.

Cummings acknowledged that county firehouses are closer than city stations in some areas of Los Angeles. But he said it was the LAFD's responsibility to send the appropriate unit to every emergency within city boundaries. "We do it very well 1,100 times a day," he said.

Currently, if city dispatchers want to summon county units they must use telephones, a process that takes too long, Skobin said. Over the last five years, when county fire stations were closer, LAFD dispatchers called county rescuers in less than 10% of emergency medical cases, according to The Times analysis, which included both agencies' dispatch records.

Dwayne Anderson's home in Hyde Park in South Los Angeles is half a block from the border and less than a mile from a county firehouse with paramedics.

Shortly before sunrise one day last March, Anderson realized that his 59-year-old girlfriend, Elaine McKinney, who had been battling breast cancer, was unconscious. She had suffered cardiac arrest, LAFD records show.

Anderson called 911 using a cellphone and was mistakenly connected to a county operator, who transferred him to the LAFD because he lived in the city.

Nervous and scared, Anderson began CPR under the guidance of the dispatcher as he waited for firefighters to arrive. He assumed rescuers would come from the nearest firehouse — the county station, where records show paramedics were available. "All I wanted was help," he said.

Instead, LAFD units — two fire trucks with no paramedics — were being dispatched from a station nearly three miles away, records show.

They reached Anderson more than 11 minutes after LAFD dispatchers answered his call. It took nearly two more minutes for a paramedic ambulance to arrive, records show.

McKinney died at a nearby hospital, according to the county's office of vital records. Anderson wonders whether her chances would have been better if the closest rescuers had responded.

"For people who have life-and-death problems, it shouldn't matter where you live," he said.

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— Robert J. Lopez, Ben Welsh and Kate Linthicum

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