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NYC Response Times Lag Because Ambulances Wait in Line at the ER
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New York City ambulances are taking almost three minutes longer than usual to respond to the most critical distress calls, mainly because of administrative bottlenecks in overwhelmed emergency rooms.
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The delays, even on streets that are uncharacteristically clear, are forcing some ambulances to line up outside hospitals as they bring patients who need immediate care.
In March, response times for the most urgent category of emergency calls -- where every minute could mean the difference between life and death -- averaged 10 minutes and 7 seconds, according to New York City Fire Department records. That compares with an average 7 minutes and 15 seconds during the same period a year earlier.
The service’s busiest nine days in history came at the end of March, said James Long, a spokesman for the city fire department, which runs EMS operations.
Response time is measured from the 911 call to the moment the ambulance arrives on the scene. Paramedics are obligated to wait until a patient is processed by the hospital before moving on to their next call.
“In a normal scenario, the ambulance pulls up to the receiving hospital and releases the patient to the emergency room. Staff there processes the intake and the EMTs get on with their next job,” Long said. “Now, they are getting the patient into a chaotic ER where everyone is stressed out. What usually takes 10 or 20 minutes can take a half hour.”
In a city of 8.6 million people, emergency rooms were filled already even before the new coronavirus hit. said Anthony Almojera, an EMS technician and vice president of FDNY EMS Officers Union Local 3621. “Now they are bursting at the seams,” he said.
EMS trucks line up outside hospitals every day, Almojera said. At Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn on Tuesday, he saw a line of 20 ambulances waiting. In one case, the hospital was so short of beds, workers borrowed an ambulance gurney so they could put a critically ill patient on a ventilator, he said.
Fire Department officials on Thursday asked New Yorkers to call 911 only for true emergencies, after EMS responded to almost 6,000 calls the day before. Ambulances don’t provide testing for Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and patients won’t be transported to a hospital to be tested upon request, officials said in aTwitter message.
Stressed-out drivers and paramedics will get some help from 250 more ambulances and 500 specialists that the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent to the city this week. On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio visited a fire department EMS station in Queens and Fort Totten, aU.S. Army installation nearby where he greeted paramedics dispatched by FEMA.
“They’re going immediately into action to help our extraordinary colleagues at the Fire Department and EMS to do the work that they do,” de Blasio said this week, during a news briefing in which he thanked federal officials for sending the ambulances and workers. “This is really powerful, and it shows how much the federal government is getting into gear now full gear to help us.”
But the added vehicles and personnel will have little impact on the slowing response times as ambulances line up at hospital driveways waiting to unload the sick, file the paperwork and get back on the empty streets for their next call.
The department has received an unprecedented volume of weekly medical calls, the most since the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, Long said. Total calls averaged 6,224 a day between March 26 and March 30. Normal daily volume ranges between 3,500 and 4,000 calls, Long said.
Almojera said some paramedics have had to wait close to an hour for processing as patients wait for beds or care. The waits take an emotional toll on EMS workers, he said.
“How many times can you go to a family member and say, ‘Sorry there is nothing more we can do?’” he said.
(A previous version corrected the extent of increased response times in the first paragraph.)