Wake County sees manpower shortage affect ambulance response times

North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – In an emergency, you don’t want to hear help isn’t available.

These days, manpower shortages are making responding to life-threatening emergencies more difficult for Wake EMS.

The manpower shortages aren’t so severe that an ambulance will sit empty for a 12-hour shift with no one to staff it— but there are times on a daily basis that dispatchers don’t have a lot of ambulances to work with.

On Tuesday, the following radio call was heard.

“Copy 313, we have no EMS units pending in the county right now.”

That’s called level zero — meaning no county ambulances available on the streets.

CBS 17 Consumer Investigator Steve Sbraccia learned it happened during a three-hour surge of 82 calls on Tuesday and that an ambulance from another county was diverted to cover the call.

“We did have a unit respond from Nash County to Zebulon during a busy time yesterday,” said Brian Brooks, the public information officer for Wake County EMS.

He said the level zero condition lasted 2 to 3 minutes.

The county runs a daily fleet of 45 ambulances, but when calls come in fast, that fleet thins.

CBS 17 wanted to know how Wake County deals with low resources.

It has a plan called the “low system resource response.”

It kicks in when only 10 ambulances are available.

At that point, shift commanders began looking at resources.

“They will call surrounding counties to see if any units can respond to answer calls,” said Brooks.

If availability drops to seven, EMS stops doing transfers from hospital to hospital.

“We can hold those because they are with a doctor or nurse,” said Brooks.

When only five ambulances are available, medical choices are made.

Brooks said EMS dispatch will triage calls based on standard medical priorities holding calls for things like a sore throat or possible sprained ankle.

“Everyone will get an ambulance, but it might be 15-20 minutes later,” he said.

CBS 17 wanted to know how often these various staffing conditions occur starting with just 10 ambulances available.

“It does happen on daily basis,” said Brooks.

Brooks said it gets down to seven available ambulances once a day.

Having just five ambulances available county-wide is less common.

“It’s not daily,” said Brooks.

He said level zero is very uncommon.

“I’ve been here 15 years and known of only two occurrences,” he said.

Last year, increased staffing for county EMS was cut from Wake County budget because of loss of revenue during the pandemic.

“The savings in the fiscal year 21 budget from cutting the two peak-load ambulances was $446,000,” said Wake County spokeswoman Dara Demi.

This year, the county is being asked to add 8 EMT/paramedic positions and restore the two peak-load ambulances in its fiscal 2022 budget.

The cost in the FY22 recommended budget to bring them back is $666,000.

Demi said “The costs differ, because one of the ambulances cut in FY21 was staffed by part-time employees and did not run a full-time schedule. The ambulance being added in FY22 that will ‘replace it’ will be staffed by full-time employees and run on a full-time schedule.”

Sbraccia asked Wake County Manager David Ellis if he anticipates that line item will be approved by the commissioners.

“The board has been very committed to insuring the public safety of our residents, so they understand its critical to have enough ambulances and staff,” he said.

Wake County EMS said the pandemic also affected recruiting.

With colleges closed, they couldn’t get new personnel.

It was a national problem.

They are hoping now with things easing, recruiting will bounce back.

Starting salary for an EMT in Wake County is $36,000.

A starting paramedic’s salary in Wake County is $45,000.

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