'It happens every day': LAFD paramedics say 911 response times continue to rise

When Carin Bannos called 911, she was confident an ambulance would arrive right away to help her 51-year-old husband Michael Davis, who had suddenly collapsed. 

"I was very, very anxious and I kept running from the house to the street, back to the house, back to the street to make sure they would not miss the house," said Bannos.  She knew the Los Angeles Fire Department was on the way. But as the clock kept on ticking, minute after minute after minute and still no ambulance, panic set in for Bannos and her 9-year-old son.

"My son was screaming, ‘Where are they, where are they?’ He kept running through the house, ‘Why can’t they save my daddy? Why is no one here?" said Bannos. 

Next door neighbor Phyllis Patterson was with the family when the paramedics finally arrived approximately 15 minutes after the 911 call. 

"One of them said to me, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and I said, ‘Why did it take so long?’ And they said, ‘Well, we had to come from a different station," Patterson recalled.  

Michael Davis died waiting for that ambulance. He had suffered a heart attack. Now, Bannos keeps wondering if her husband would have survived if only the ambulance had arrived earlier.

"I’m constantly thinking about it, should I have done something different," she said. "Should I have taken him myself to the hospital?" 

FOX 11 News spent three months communicating with multiple LAFD paramedics. Some went on camera but asked us to protect their identity for fear of retaliation. Others served as background sources providing crucial information. They all said the public needs to know the truth.

"The truth is you don't have the ambulance service, the EMS service that you think you have. Ambulances are coming from greater and greater distances. It's taking longer and longer to get to your emergency," says one LAFD paramedic. "The longer it takes, the less your chance of a good outcome."

Another said what happened to Carin Bannos is not uncommon. 

"It happens every day," he said. "You guys don't ever hear about it. We don't go public with it, but it's on a constant basis. Our average response time should be anywhere for three to four minutes; 10 minutes, you're lucky. Fifteen is common, and 20 is going to be the norm."

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The LAFD serves the second-largest city in the nation with nearly 4 million people, not including the large number of tourists. The department has 106 fire stations, some responding to up to 30 calls in a 24-hour shift.

"Our staffing levels have decreased over the years. Our call volume has more than doubled. We're running around 2,000 calls a day from about 1,000 when I first started. Our number of fire stations has not increased," said the LAFD Paramedic.

There are a total of eight fire stations that do not have ambulances because they used to be low-call generating stations. But sources told FOX 11 that that’s no longer the case. Paramedics insist ambulances are needed because, "the paramedics on the fire engine don't carry narcotics, and they're not allowed to do certain procedures. They have to wait until an additional resource with two paramedic shows up. So, they're very limited in what they're allowed to do." 

It’s not uncommon for firefighter paramedics to travel from downtown LA to the West side; from Pacific Palisades to South Central and from DTLA to San Pedro

"They talk about, 'Well, we'll move this fire engine over here and do that.’ Well, that's just shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic," said one paramedic. At hospitals, you will often see several ambulances parked outside the Emergency Room. Paramedics cannot leave until the patient they transported has been admitted into the ER and with hospitals being understaffed, paramedics could be stuck there for hours.

"That’s a pretty scary thing to think that they don’t have the resource to get an ambulance here," said Isabel Ortiz.

When Ortiz and her daughter Ariel Perez called 911, 4-year-old Mason was sick. Ortiz said, "I’ve never heard a child cry like that, he sounded like a wounded animal." 

Perez said, "We call 911. We tell them we don’t know what to do, he’s shaking, he’s sweating, screaming, and crying."

An LAFD fire engine arrived within minutes, but the ambulance was busy responding to an emergency in a different district. 

Perez remembered thinking, "Where’s the rest of the crew? Where’s the ambulance? Where’s the transportation?" 

In the end, Perez and Ortiz drove Mason to the hospital themselves. He’s fine now, but it was a terrifying experience for his loved ones. 

"We need to be better in regard to how we provide those services and what I mean by being better, is having better plans in surge capacity," said LAFD Fire Chief Kristin Crowley.

Chief Crowley knows first-hand what LAFD paramedics are going through. She is the first paramedic to the hold the office of Fire Chief in the 137-year history of the department.

"We're doing deep dives in regard to our response times and how we can limit the response times as well as elevate our capability to ensure that we have agility built into our EMS response capability, as well as the staffing that we need to continue to supplement our increased workload," said Crowley.

On the LAFD website, the average response time for critical ALS, such as cardiac arrest is 6 minutes and 14 seconds. According to Chief Crowley, "There's about 1.2% of the time where it would be an extended response time of something like you said over 15 minutes so with those anomalies, that's where we do a deep dive to ensure that we understand why it happened and what are the solutions moving forward."

Chief Crowley said the LAFD currently has five fire academies this fiscal year, and she’s asking for an additional five. Chief Crowley is also looking at the possibility of ‘emergency-hire paramedics’ to replace 300 personnel retiring between now and December.

"The big push is to onboard as many people as we can to continue to hire and come up with innovative ways to onboard or as I like to say build our bench, so we can get through this next big push of retirements," she said. 

For her part, Bannos said, "I want people to know how long it took for them to come. So, maybe if someone hears that, more people will actually complain and change can be made for more fire stations, more access, a plan B, just more help, because it felt really, really helpless that day."  

This is the first of three segments on the Los Angeles Fire Department.