SD officials say they have to respond too often to Benavides calls

Christopher Maher, Alice Echo-News Journal

Officials with the City of San Diego have asked Duval County Judge Abel Aragon to review the county's 9-1-1 agreement with their city and the City of Benavides, stating they believe San Diego is responding to an unfair number of calls.

Former San Diego Emergency Medical Services Director Sergio Garcia made the request to the judge on behalf of the San Diego City Council prior to his resignation last week.

In an interview before his resignation, Garcia said his EMS service was responding to an average of 15 calls for 9-1-1 response in Benavides a month, calls he believed the Benavides EMS should have covered.

With only one ambulance on duty in San Diego at night, Garcia said responding to those calls force dispatchers to rely on ambulance services from Alice in the event of an emergency.

"My concern is that we respond to Benavides quite a bit, and then we leave our city uncovered, especially at night," Garcia said. "We don't have the financial means to run two ambulances 24 hours a day."

The county currently pays the cities of San Diego and Benavides $25,000 each a year to respond to 9-1-1 calls outside their cities. Garcia said he believed the $50,000 total paid by the county to the cities should no longer be divided equally, and that San Diego should get a larger portion of the funding.

Benavides EMS director Leo Bazan said Friday San Diego officials had been making that argument for years, but said his service was sharing the load because his service area was larger than that of San Diego.

"Our coverage is like 900 square miles," Bazan said. "Of course they're going to cover for us every once in awhile, and of course we're going to cover for them every once in awhile."

The Benavides EMS has one operational ambulance, Bazan said, and often struggles to supply the adequate staffing to keep that ambulance running 24 hours a day.

Because of the large service area, Bazan said transporting patients to hospitals in Alice and Kingsville and then returning to the city can often take more than two hours, during which time the city relies on San Diego to respond to 9-1-1 calls. That system has been in place for many years, Bazan said, and is fair.

"Of course, population is much greater in San Diego than it is in Benavides," Bazan said. "It balances out with the rural area that we have to cover."

When asked about the issue last week, Aragon said he understood the case both sides were making and had asked both cities to provide data to him regarding their calls.

"I am aware of the concerns, but as to who is right, I'm going to be honest with you and say at this point I don't know," Aragon said. "A month ago I sent a certified letter to the directors in Benavides and San Diego to send me some documentation of the number runs they've made in the past two years and the geographical location where the patient was picked up."

Aragon said he already made a recommendation to the Benavides City Council to create an Emergency Services District, which would allow the city to create a tax that would be applied exclusively to EMS funding.

The City of Freer currently has such a district, Aragon said, and receives no additional funding from the county.

Other possible solutions, Aragon said, could include contracting with a private company for ambulance service in the county, or adjusting the payment to the cities to pay only on a per call basis.

No decision will be reached, Aragon said, until he has an opportunity to review the information he requested from the cities.

"I'm caught in the middle, and I want what's best for Duval County," Aragon said. "But we need to look at this very carefully."