Accident occurs soon after County Fire Authority/Cal Fire hauled away four-wheel-drive ambulances and fire engines formerly run by Julian’s volunteer fire department
County, Cal Fire and Mercy Medical Transportation fail to answer questions or provide solutions to prevent future fiascos
By Paul Kruze, Contributing Editor
December 6, 2019 (Julian) -- As San Diegans rushed up to the mountain community of Julian last Saturday to play in the snow, a Mercy Medical Transportation, Inc. two-wheel drive ambulance under contract to the San Diego County Fire Authority and Cal Fire missed a curve on State Highway 78, landed off the side of the road and got stuck in snow for hours.
The incident occurred at 8:15 a.m. near Jess Martin Park. According to sources familiar with the situation, the two-man crew had been dispatched all the way from Valley Center, since Julian no longer has a locally stationed ambulance. The crew was reportedly unhurt and had been on the way to Julian Fire Station No. 56. It wasn’t until around 1 p.m. that a tow truck arrived to extricate the ambulance. It is unclear why neither Mercy or Cal Fire could provide a winch to free the vehicle sooner.
ECM contacted CAL FIRE’s Public Information Officer, Capt. Thomas Shoots, who said that the ambulance was not on an emergency call but was en route to Julian. Shoots, however, replied a couple hours later with a text message referring further questions to Mercy Medical Transportation, Inc.
Several attempts to contact Mercy Transportation’s Vice President of Operations, Douglas Moriarty, with two phone messages and a text message to his mobile telephone yielded no reply or acknowledgement.
ECM faced a similar situation of not getting responses from Cal Fire to verify accounts of a reportedly marooned CAL FIRE vehicle when another Mercy ambulance was involved in a head-on collision with a single occupant vehicle on November 3 at 6:04 p.m. on State Highway 78. ECM learned of the accident via Broadcastify audio of radio traffic.
On Thursday morning at 6:47 a.m., the CHP issued a dispatch for a vehicle accident at near the Julian post office. Reportedly, rescue vehicles left from the Cal Fire station and went the wrong way to an incident a few blocks away.
Another accident also occurred Saturday evening at 5:03 p.m. when a vehicle hit a pedestrian in front of Jeremy’s On The Hill restaurant at the 4300 block of State Highway 78, as Broadcastify audio confirms.
When snow falls in East County San Diego mountains, thousands of San Diegans venture up to Julian and other mountain areas for a day in the snow. While small shop owners, restaurants, and bars enjoy and depend on the extra revenue from tourists, locals do not necessarily appreciate the increased vehicle traffic which can turn winding local roads into hours long traffic jams. If ambulances are not based in Julian, but far away, snow jams pose heightened dangers to residents and tourists alike.
Since the dissolution of the Julian Cuyamaca Fire Protection District (JCFPD) residents have clamored seeing their four-wheel drive (purchased with JCFPD funds) fire engines and ambulances being towed out of Julian and replaced with two-wheel drive vehicles. A water tender owned by the JCFPD has already been sold to a fire district in Tennessee.
(A two-wheel drive vehicle mechanism sends engine power to two wheels (front or back) to get the vehicle moving. A four-wheel drive mechanism sends power to all four wheels, so it can take on severe road conditions more confidently. Compared to two-wheel drive, a four-wheel system can provide a safer and more controlled experience when you're traveling through less-than-perfect terrain and weather conditions.)
ECM made a request to CALFIRE to see the vehicles impounded by the County Fire Authority, but the agency ignored its request.
The Union-Tribune reports that most of the other equipment purchased and used by the JCFPD will be sold for salvage. Mecham said, “Some of those vehicles will cost more to repair than they are worth. Some are at the end of their lifespan. Others may be repaired and put back into service.”
That point was disputed by the former JCFPD Chief Mke Van Bibber, who has indicated many of the vehicles were new within the last few days and serviceable.
Should the JCFPD win its appeal, the county could be liable to replace all the vehicles and other items which were impounded, a legal expert told ECM.
Residents confronted San Diego Board of Supervisor Dianne Jacob during her recent town hall when as she spoke, several fire engines intended to protect Julian headed down to fight the Sawday Fire near Ramona leaving Julian without fire protection. She also admitted that the consolidation of the rural fire district “has glitches.” Jacob most recently refused to answer questions regarding her statement about the “glitches” in a follow-up question ask to her.
Jacobs also acknowledged during her recent Town Hall meeting that the vote to decide the future of the JCFPD “was not fair.”
In response to repeated questions from ECM asking what will be done to get four-wheel-drive emergency response vehicles to Julian and to restore medical and fire service responses to at least what it was prior to the county takeover and dissolution of the volunteer fire department, Jacob cites money spent since 2003 on fire consolidation and improving fire protection countywide. Asked pointedly about Julian, she claims, “…with consolidation, first-responders in Julian can now more easily call on engines and personnel from other stations for coverage during mutual aid incidents.”
However when ECM pointed out that mutual aid coverage is now coming from far away and asked how that makes Julian safer, Jacob referred further questions to the County Fire Authority/Cal Fire, which has dodged answering those important public safety concerns.
East County Magazine recently offered Supervisor Jacob and CalFire Chief Tony Mecham to meet at the County Administration Building for an interview to address its follow up questions about the continuous and expensive ongoing legal battle with the JCFPD and to address the “glitches” brought up by Jacob. Neither Jacob’s Communication Director, Steve Schmidt, nor Jacob have replied to its request.
The decision by CAL FIRE’s Chief, Tony Mecham, to take out of service the four-wheel drive JCFPD vehicles has only stirred up more controversy for the former volunteers trying to reverse the dissolution of their volunteer fire department.
Mecham has consistently refused to be interviewed or offer comment about CALFIRE’s recent operational snafus to ECM.
Some three weeks ago, the county towed away all of JCFPD’s fire trucks, ambulances, and other vehicles from Julian Fire Station No. 56 after Superior Court Judge Randa Trapp issued her final ruling on a lawsuit by the supporters of the volunteer department. Attorney Cory Briggs has filed an appeal to Trapp’s ruling.
Mecham said to the Union-Tribune, “Some of those vehicles will cost more to repair than they’re worth. Some are at the end of their lifespan. Others may be repaired and put back in service.”
Earlier this year, drone footage showed Cal Fire engines also mired in deep snow, without a snow plow to dig them out. The JCFPD had access to a snow plow as well as multiple 4-wheel drive vehicles and reportedly had far shorter response times than many recent incidents since the consolidation.
ECM received the following equipment list from the former JCFPD:
1- HME, 4x4, structure engine, 4 years old
1- Beck, 4x4, structure engine, 17 years old
1- International, 4x4, brush engine, 12 years old
2- Ford, crew cab, 4x4, rescue units, w/ extrication equipment, and rope rescue equipment for over the side emergencies. 10 years old
1- Dodge, 4x4, ALS ambulance, 3 years old
1- Ford, 4x4, ALS ambulance, 11 years old
1- Ford, 4x4, Multi-purpose Patrol Unit, 12 years old
1- Ford, 4x4, F-150, crew cab pickup, Chief Vehicle, 6 years old
2- Chevrolet, 4x4, Tahoe, Battalion Chief, and EMS Chief, 12 years old
Residents of Julian made clear how they feel about the snafu about the ambulance via posts on the “Julian Connection” Facebook social media site.
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