By Alfredo Santana
MONTEBELLO — Amid a steady increase of emergency calls and the challenges posed by the bankruptcy filing by the city’s only hospital, the Montebello fire chief has asked the City Council to approve a plan to overhaul how the department responds to medical emergencies.
Fire Chief Fernando Pelaez said the innovative model would prevent fire engines from transporting patients to hospitals and emergency rooms away from the city, keeping the units ready to fight fires or attend to other emergencies.
He said a “restructured delivery model” would continue deploying a fire engine plus a squad ambulance for 911 call, but a squad ambulance would be in charge of driving patients to an available emergency room without escort.
Currently, three fire engines are tasked with medical follow-ups. Sometimes all engines leave the city at once, endangering residents’ safety if a fire breaks out.
“At times it is not uncommon to have all engines out of the city, which is something that really concerns me,” Pelaez said. “It’s not a model that is sustainable.”
Personnel would be increased from the current 17 firefighters serving a day to 24, with a minimum of six trained as firefighters and paramedics, he said.
Each of the proposed three squads would be operated by two firefighters with paramedic certification, and a battalion chief ready with a backup ambulance. Currently the city has one squad unit in service, and another ready to be purchased.
The plan provides for a fourth squad unit on reserve.
The issue became critical after Beverly Hospital filed for bankruptcy in April, reducing services in the maternity and pediatric wards, while threatening to close its emergency room.
Before American Healthcare Services agreed to purchase Beverly Hospital last week in a bankruptcy auction, the facility suspended 18 maternity and 15 pediatric beds to cope with shrinking resources as it failed to find a buyer since last December.
Alice Cheng, chief executive officer of Beverly Hospital, said in a public notice that patients requiring admission for pregnancy or pediatric care will be transferred to hospitals in Los Angeles, El Monte or Whittier.
Cheng did not say what vehicles are being used to transfer the hospital’s patients. The suspension of services in the two wards resulted in 55 employees losing their jobs.
Additional cuts were slated for the radiology, cardiac surgery and wound care units, affecting 12 more employees.
Cheng could not be reached for further comment.
The push to overhaul emergency response services arrives as the fire department experienced a surge in 911 calls in 2022. Pelaez projects heavier workloads due to additional housing being built and the arrival of entertainment venues such as TopGolf that would attract thousands of people from other cities.
“These all are going to impact us,” Pelaez told the council. “They are going to add a substantial amount of more calls. We are already being tested to the brinks of our capacity.”
Last year, Montebello firefighters and paramedics fielded 9,437 calls seeking emergency help, an increase of 456 from the 8,981 recorded in 2021.
Almost 75% of the calls were for medical services; the remainder were for fires or to mitigate other hazardous situations.
Another potential issue for the fire department is a bill pending in the state Legislature that would shift the response burden from police to firefighters, emergency medical personnel and non-sworn unarmed police on calls seeking intervention on mental health or homeless cases.
If the City Council leaders approves Pelaez’s proposal, it would require the purchase three Ford-550 squad rescue units. They would arrive in August 2024 and be equipped, staffed and ready to use in one or two months.
Dr. Angie Loza, the Montebello Fire Department medical director and a USC professor of emergency medicine, said she fully endorses the request to upgrade the first responder’s services.
“It is quite a task to attend to the needs of a city as busy as Montebello, its medical needs and the children and adults that it serves,” Loza said. “It’s really phenomenal to review all the medical calls as I do, and be proud of the [first responders’] work they do.
“They are really stressed for the high volume that goes up every year.”
She underscored that despite rising workloads, staffing has been stagnant and concurred this is the time to implement an innovative delivery model.
Loza also pleaded to fund a full-time emergency battalion chief post who would cover the dual jobs of being a supervisor and provide additional emergency services.
Pelaez said his department launched a recruitment program for firefighters with paramedic certification, and are holding interviews every week.
Mayor David Torres said that diversion in the medical field has led to understaffed fire departments and hospitals, while Pelaez answered that senior staff are becoming trainers to provide on the job skills to younger firefighters and new personnel to increase retention.
Torres said he spoke with attorneys from American Healthcare Services, who committed to restore the services rolled back at Beverly Hospital and to rehire laid off personnel.
Loza said the goal is to expand traditional firefighter roles, make them join paramedic school and earn certificates to provide more complex services such as inserting IVs, determining what medications should be given, clearing airways, giving shots or performing resuscitations beyond CPRs.
In light of staff shortages and the ongoing hospital turmoil, Councilman Salvador Melendez urged his colleagues to support the new emergency services approach.
“We need to change our service model, be more proactive and adapt with the times,” Melendez said. “I do believe that if we don’t adopt this model, we would definitely put people’s lives in jeopardy.”
Pelaez agreed to provide a full fiscal report of his proposal with staffing needs to the council at the July 28 meeting.