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I-Team: Concerns raised about old ambulances with high mileage

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A number of first responders say they are worried about old worn-out ambulances still operating on the streets of San Francisco. (KGO-TV)

As big crowds hit town for the Super Bowl, the influx of thousands of people coming to enjoy the festivities is expected to bring a surge in emergency medical response calls.

We all count on the EMS, or Emergency Medical Response System, to save lives on a daily basis but some insiders tell the ABC7 I-Team they have concerns about the impact the Super Bowl surge could have on what they describe as an already-overwhelmed system.

State, local and federal authorities here have planned for three years to host the Super Bowl here and they appear confident they've done all they can to be prepared for any emergency situation. But a number of frontline first responders say they're worried that old worn-out ambulances could prevent them from responding to emergencies or even to a multiple-casualty incident if one should occur.

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According to the timeline provided by the fire department, the ambulance arrived 13 minutes after the initial call.

"We are driving around ambulances that are highly unreliable," one paramedic told the I-Team's Dan Noyes.

Noyes: "You're saying patient safety is at risk?"
Paramedic: "I believe so, yes."

ABC7 agreed to protect one paramedic's identity because he fears speaking out could jeopardize his job. He drives for a commercial ambulance company under contract to respond to 911 calls. He has 10 years of experience.

He told the I-Team that some of the ambulances on the streets today have serious mechanical problems. He is one of a number of paramedics who explained how the Emergency Medical Response System is plagued by old worn-out ambulances.

Noyes: "How often are you seeing ambulances break down?"
Paramedic: "Multiple units going out of service on a weekly basis."

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A new report by the civil grand jury says the San Francisco Fire Department ambulances are not getting to emergency medical calls fast enough.

Another complaint we heard from EMS professionals was that the vehicles they count on to get them to emergencies don't have the latest stability control or air bag technology. Insiders said often times they are rushing to emergencies in vehicles that have broken seats, seat belt problems, worn out suspensions, broken gurneys and a lack of sufficient supplies.

More than one paramedic described ambulances and emergency vehicles with what they called excessive amounts of miles on them. Sources provided the ABC7 I-Team with pictures of what they say are ambulance odometers in vehicles still on the streets with over 200,000, over 300,000 and over 400,000 miles on them.

Concerned sources say these are pictures of ambulance odometers showing high mileage.

A paramedic told the I-Team, "You are driving on suspensions that have 400,000 miles on them. We don't know what that might do to somebody who has an unstable spinal injury."

Retired San Francisco paramedic-firefighter Peter Green worked in EMS for 20 years in the Bay Area. He has obtained public records and studied Bay Area EMS systems. He's become a taxpayer advocate trying to assist communities with the effort to develop cost-effective emergency medical systems.

Green says the average age of the San Francisco Fire Department's ambulance fleet is about nine or 10 years old, making it in the oldest fleet in the Bay Area. He said the average age in the other counties three to three-and-a-half years old. Green points out Los Angeles County retires their ambulances after 10 years.

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The ABC7 News I-Team has learned the SFFD is reviewing an incident in which an elderly man died after an ambulance arrived too late.

But when the I-Team tracked down San Francisco Fire Department Chief Joanne Hayes-White, she denied the department's fleet is the oldest in the Bay Area.

She said, "Not correct. We have 19 ambulances in our current fleet that were purchased from 2013 forward."

Hayes-White insists 50 of the 54 ambulances operated by SFFD are capable of hitting the street today.

Peter Green said, "One of the symptoms that they have a fleet problem is that they are 'hot seating' crews. That means they are paying a crew with pay and benefits over $100 an hour to sit waiting for an ambulance."

He says that happens because older ambulances break down and are in the shop for repairs.

But Hayes-White told us, "My understanding is there have never been crews waiting around because of an ambulance shortage. That is not the case."

She said 19 of the 20 to 25 ambulances the department puts on the street every day are new apparatus.

Hayes-White said, "Some of them have some wear and tear on them but we're in good shape."

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San Francisco Supervisor London Breed gave SFFD Chief Joanne Hayes-White a 'no confidence' vote against her.

But six months ago a Civil Grand Jury published the results of their investigation titled "San Francisco Fire Department: What Does the Future Hold?"

They conducted 33 interviews with SFFD leadership, rank and file firefighters and paramedics, plus various city department heads and some of their findings are troubling.

The Grand Jury concluded half the city's ambulances were more than 10 years old. Their report indicates one-third of the fleet "may require servicing at any given time." The Grand Jury blamed slow response times on a "chronic lack of serviceable ambulances" and they recommended the San Francisco Fire Department "replace the aging ambulance fleet."

Green says the challenges the emergency medical system faces are serious but not unsolvable. He said he believes the city has an excellent group of firefighters and paramedics but the problem is they are hamstrung with poor training, poor facilities and poor equipment.

One of the commercial companies said it worked closely with Hayes-White to bring in extra ambulances for Super Bowl Week and they have enough resources to handle any emergency.

The Civil Grand Jury has called for Hayes-White to issue a six-month progress report, but that hasn't happened yet.

Click here to view the 44 page June 2015 Civil Grand Jury Investigation of San Francisco Fire Department Ambulance Fleet.

Click here for more stories and videos by Dan Noyes and the I-Team.
Related Topics:
newsI-TeamSFFDambulancemedical emergencytrucksSuper BowlSuper Bowl 50firefightersSan Francisco
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