Return to Old Staffing Model Brings Back Gaps in Paramedic Coverage for Long Beach Fire Department

File photo. 

Just days after the Long Beach Fire Department (LBFD) returned its emergency medical response units to its old configuration, given the discontinuance of the controversial Rapid Medic Deployment (RMD) Program, the conversation turned to the new hole in paramedic coverage in the city. The discussion centered on how such a gap could be patched to improve service citywide.

Ninth District Councilman Rex Richardson, one of four council members who brought the issue up for discussion, pressed LBFD Chief Mike Duree on how the return to pre-RMD coverage would affect service to the city.

Adding a ninth rescue paramedic unit would cost the city over $1 million dollars. However, Richardson said taking responders away from one part of the city would affect every neighborhood. He recounted an incident from years past that required units from two different parts of the city to dispatch to North Long Beach, resulting in a response time of over 15 minutes. 

“It’s really a citywide system,” Richardson said. “And by taking out and not having those resources, it really puts a strain on the whole system. My concern is that if we go back to eight rescues, we’ll experience similar issues.”

Duree said that after using software simulating various service models, the department decided that the pre-RMD locations for paramedic response units were the appropriate spots for the units to be placed. The same software has been used in the past by the department to identify areas where the department would cut back its resources.

He said the system is a “sum of its parts” and that adding to the resources would only help to make it stronger. But given the mandatory cut to the RMD program, the department would have to operate with eight units, unless funding can be identified to finance an additional unit.

“Bottom line is, if we had a hole in our system we would be shifting that hole in our system from one place in the city to another place in the city, and we believe the deployment model we put in place today,” Duree said. “Given the resources we have, is the very best thing we can do for the city today.”

The department received a letter earlier from the Los Angeles County Emergency Medical Services in late August, demanding that the LBFD terminate the RMD program because of “significant safety issues” presented by the the department’s cost-cutting practice of staffing one paramedic per unit instead of the dual-medic system it previously employed.

Under the RMD program, a medic was staffed on all 29 apparatuses utilized by the department instead of the 17 in the pre-RMD model it returned to this month. The agreement with the county EMS called for a second medic to arrive on scene within three minutes at least 95 percent of the time to avoid a “fallout”. The letter received in August noted an unacceptable number of these instances—ones that were characterized by Duree and the department’s medical director as overblown—and gave the LBFD until October 1 to wind down the program.

Adding an additional unit will be expensive, but most who spoke during the hearing agreed it was a necessary cost that needs to be discussed.

“If there’s a child that’s swallowed something and you can’t get it out, it’s critical that the emergency services be there,” said one North Long Beach resident. “If they have to come from  across town as opposed to being close by, the amount of time that it might take for them to come through your door and actually start the work{…] this is what’s before you tonight.” 

Richardson’s motion to hopefully locate those funds within the next fiscal year resonated with community members and fire personnel alike.

Long Beach Firefighter’s Association Vice President Joel Davis said while he believed the current EMS program is strong, it certainly can be improved.

“We have a black hole in our system and a ninth rescue would definitely fill that,” Davis said. “It’s a good start, but it’s not the end of what we need. I think today, to fill that hole, to fill the paramedic response times, to provide the service to the residents that have showed up tonight is something that we need to focus on and is something that we need to do.”

The motion calls for a staff report to come back to the council within 60 days on the feasibility options of putting a ninth paramedic rescue unit back on the streets to ensure that communities in all districts of the city would have equal access to potentially life saving services. He asked that all avenues including contracting fire services out to surrounding cities be explored in an effort to find the necessary funds to expand the fleet as it will improve response times city wide.

“I personally believe we’re at a moment where folks, whether it’s pundits, the media or people who have watched the council for a long time, expect us to divert to the dark ages of debate where in order for my community to win your community has to lose,” Richardson said. “I believe that we were elected to really think bigger and broader about our city. And rather [than] have the conversation about whose community loses, I’d rather have a smart conversation about how all communities can win.” 

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.