Fire departments throughout Orange County are facing questions from the OC Grand Jury on why they routinely send out fire trucks when there aren’t any fires since a majority of 911 calls are for medical emergencies.

In a report titled “WHERE’S THE FIRE? Stop Sending Fire Trucks to Medical Calls,” released last month, grand jurors pointed out that while fire trucks are sent out on nearly all emergency calls, almost 80% of 911 calls in Orange County are for medical assistance, not fires. 

It’s a statistic that Placentia city officials realized years ago, which was the basis of them forming their own fire department with a completely different response model than fire agencies throughout OC.

To read the OC Grand Jury report, click here

Most of the report revolved around the OC Fire Authority’s handling of emergency medical services, since it services the majority of Orange County cities. 

According to the grand jury report, last year, nearly 75% of the agency’s emergency calls were for medical alerts, while 1.7% were fire calls. 

The remaining calls were labeled “other,” including problems such as “persons in distress, smoke, odor problems, hazardous conditions,” and others. 

The agency dispatches a team of at least six personnel across a fire truck and an ambulance “regardless of the classification of the medical emergency,” a decision the grand jury criticized. 

“Because over 75 percent of all fire dispatch calls are for medical emergencies, dispatching … response with a truck or engine to every medical call does not make sense and results in a consistent over-deployment of equipment and personnel,” grand jurors wrote.  

Fire authority spokesman Matt Olson said that while they’d received the report and “appreciate the work that went into it,” the agency declined to comment until it had a chance to conduct a “thorough review of the report and its recommendations.” 

Since a majority of fire department calls are for medical emergencies, Placentia became the first city in the county to break away from the Orange County Fire Authority and create its own fire department in 2019. 

Spearheaded by City Manager Damien Arrula, Placentia’s response model takes the advanced-life-saving paramedic off the firetrucks and puts them on ambulances since an overwhelming majority of their calls are for medical emergencies.

[Read: Placentia Fire Department to Take Reins From OC Fire Authority After Year-Long Battle]

Placentia City Council members and city officials faced considerable pushback from various firefighter unions and the fire authority during their switch, which is expected to save the city millions of dollars by the end of the decade, according to city projections.

[Read: Placentia Alleges OC Fire Authority Misconduct After City Leaves Agency]

The high volume of medical deployments come as the OCFA has struggled with “firefighter fatigue,” reporting that “the volume of vacant shifts is substantially exceeding the overtime our firefighters wish to work.” 

The grand jury pointed out that not sending out those fire trucks to every stop could help reduce the strain on the understaffed department, “leading to a reduction in work time and stress for on-duty firefighters.” 

Meanwhile, the report praises the work of the Placentia Fire Department.

They also implemented a new response system that functions differently than any other in Orange County: when a 911 call comes in, the police department dispatcher determines if police, fire, or an ambulance are needed and just dispatches the required units. 

The report referenced preliminary data released by Placentia pointing out how just sending out ambulances has cut four minutes off the response time for first responders and cut costs for the city. 

“Placentia should receive credit for attempting (and in many ways delivering) a new and better approach to EMS,” the jurors stated. 

In a statement, Placentia Fire Chief Jason Dobine said their system has helped speed up response times and increased coordination between the police and fire departments. 

“Sending the appropriate resources for the appropriate call type should be the goal of any public safety agency,” Dobine wrote. “I am proud of the trajectory that we are on, and I look forward to continued growth as an organization.” 

In their conclusion, the grand jurors recommended that within the next two years every fire agency in Orange County should implement a system that sends a single unit to “incidents triaged as non-life-threatening,” and that the OCFA should use more paramedic vehicles instead of a second fire truck at their fire houses. 

This isn’t the first time the grand jury has made recommendations like these to the OCFA. 

Over a decade ago, an Orange County Grand Jury pointed out the same problem with nearly identical statistics, showcasing how fire trucks were being used where there wasn’t any fire. 

“Of the 180,000 incidents reported in Orange County in 2010 by the various fire departments, approximately 134,000 (76%) were for medical emergencies and 44,000 (24%) were for fires and ‘other,’” the jurors wrote in 2012. 

That report also recommended that local agencies consider changing up their model. 

“The city fire departments and the Orange County Fire Authority should engage independent private consultants to re-evaluate their models for providing response for both fire and medical emergencies,” the jurors recommended. “Suggested alternative models should include forming a unified Emergency Response Department that includes fire and medical response, separating the fire response from the medical response, privatizing the emergency medical response, etc.” 

Local agencies and fire departments have between up to 90 days to respond to the grand jury report on whether or not they agree with the recommendations or if they will implement them. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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