SAN JOSE, Calif. -- As San Jose Fire (Calif.) Department leaders begin scrutinizing the department's role in treating and transporting inmates at Santa Clara County Jail, firefighters who respond to frequent calls at the lockup are describing frightening situations for which they were never trained.
Jeff Welch, vice president of San Jose Firefighters Local 230, worked at Fire Station 1 at 225 N. Market St. from roughly 1998 to 2005. He said he responded to medical calls at the jail up to five times in a day, and some fire department rules were disregarded as his crew was left alone with inmates during emergencies.
In response to firefighters' complaints - which they say fell on deaf ears for eight years - San Jose's public safety committee on April 17 launched a review of fire department and jail policies on medical calls to the lockup. A report back to the committee is due June 19.
City firefighters who are also paramedics typically respond to calls at the 18-floor jail at 150 W. Hedding St. at the same time a private ambulance arrives.
Paramedics' rescue knives are left in vehicles, and scissors must be buried in a medical box to prevent inmates from snatching them.
Together they enter the North or South Main Jail, and a jail guard escorts them through a series of locked doors to reach the patient; sometimes it takes 10 minutes or more to reach a person with an injury such as a slit wrist or an attempted hanging, Welch said. Many inmates begin serving time with medical problems and drug addictions.
Some firefighters fear attacks or being taken hostage - in which case the jail's "no hostage" policy would let the inmate and hostage starve before authorities cave to demands.
Welch, speaking outside a public safety committee meeting on April 17, trembled as he described an incident in the jail years ago.
"We walked in and went through one or two doors," he said. "A code went off on the public address system that there was a riot elsewhere in the jail. The guard ran off and left us. I remember being with a patient all alone. I've never been trained by county guards for that," he said.
According to the fire department's 2004 Emergency Medical Services Manual, firefighters must "ensure the escort officer remains with the fire department company." The manual also requires correction officers to secure inmates in a cell or have them "restrained or removed from the area and locked behind a door . . . prior to travel by fire personnel in the facility."
Firefighters say that rule is routinely ignored, and inmates are secured only after medical crews enter rooms.
According to an incident report from January, a fire crew was dispatched to drive an inmate from the jail to Santa Clara County Medical Center about 3 1/2 miles away. Firefighters entered the jail's inmate processing center and found 10 to 12 prisoners handcuffed to a chair. They were told the injured inmate was on the second floor, and were escorted in to several locked chambers. They had to stop three times to ask for five unsecured inmates to be locked in cells or "shackled to a fixed object," the report stated.
Firefighters who meet injured inmates in more than four minutes are supposed to write unusual occurrence reports, and city officials plan to review some of those records in its investigation.
Another question posed by city leaders is why a permanent "sally port," or detention area on the ground floor of the jail, could not be used in every instance outside medical help is called to save time and increase safety.
Even if an inmate has a spinal injury and cannot be easily moved, medical staff at the jail has been trained to load the person on a stretcher and prepare him for the hospital. Some critics have questioned why firefighters need to enter the jail beyond the ground floor.
It is unclear how often a sally port is used at the jail, but San Jose Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio said jails in other cities such as Los Angeles use them.
Oliverio, who initiated a formal review of firefighters' role at the jail in an April 17 public safety committee meeting, said the issue raises three more questions: Are firefighters who respond to daily 911 calls at the jail being drawn away from emergencies in the Rose Garden area and downtown? Are the calls urgent or are they routine trips to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center? Is it costing the city too much money to provide medical and transportation services that the county could provide?
"When they're at the jail, they're not in neighborhoods," Oliverio said.
Councilmembers Pete Constant and Madison Nguyen also expressed concern for the issue at the committee meeting, and Oliverio has already asked for the public safety committee's support in bringing potential reforms to the city council.
Leaders from Santa Clara County's Department of Correction have said little about the firefighters' accusations and the city's inquiry.
"This is an exchange of information, and we meet regularly with emergency personnel," said Mark Cursi, spokesman for the Department of Correction. Cursi acknowledged that senior correction officials have met with fire department leaders in recent weeks.
Others have said staffing shortages at the jail may have contributed to problems.
At the April 17 committee meeting, San Jose assistant fire chief Nicolas Thomas defended jail staff.
"The fire department has no reason to believe that DOC staff isn't committed to their job," Thomas said.
In response to the city's inquiry, the fire department plans to conduct more interviews with first responders, form a committee to review emergency response protocol, survey other city's practices, review patient care reports and analyze response times. San Jose Fire Department leaders also plan to meet with county communications, Emergency Medical Services and Department of Correction officials.