The Emergency Medical Service Authority (EMSA) has reported longer response times since the start of the pandemic.
Data requested by News 9 shows the average response time for life-threatening, or priority one calls increased by four minutes in the past year in EMSA’s Western Division, which covers Oklahoma City and some surrounding communities.
In December 2019, the average priority one response time was 7 minutes, 38 seconds. In December 2020 it was 11 minutes, 38 seconds.
Chief of Operations John Graham said the agency is handling multiple challenges simultaneously. A shortage of paramedics, added decontamination protocols for COVID-19 and longer wait times outside hospitals are all contributing factors, he said.
“All of that added up really is the perfect storm,” Graham said. “Unfortunately, it’s put us in a bad position.”
Graham said ambulances are regularly taken out of circulation because of increased wait times outside hospital emergency rooms.
“The (emergency rooms) are full. There literally is no bed… so we have to wait,” he said.
EMSA ambulances experienced “an over 260% increase” in delays waiting for hospital beds, Graham said. There were more than 600 incidents last month of an ambulance waiting longer than 20 minutes before moving their patient to a hospital bed.
On one occasion last month, Graham said one ambulance crew waited more than six hours before a hospital bed opened up.
“Over half of their entire shift was spent sitting in an ER waiting for one patient to be unloaded off their stretcher,” he said.
A spokesperson for SSM St. Anthony said in a statement Thursday the hospital is in constant contact with ambulance services to update minute-to-minute changes in bed supply.
“An influx of high acuity patients seeking care during a pandemic can lead to capacity constraints, so we work closely with EMSA and other emergency providers to ensure patients are cared for by a medical professional at all times,” said officials with SSM St. Anthony.
In recent weeks, Graham said EMSA has begun assigning paramedics to monitor patients outside hospitals as they wait for beds to open. The new practice, he said, may be used long-term to allow ambulances to respond to more calls.
EMSA is also offering $5,000 and $10,000 bonuses to new EMTs and paramedics, respectively.
“Our staffing, in general is poor. There's a worldwide shortage of paramedics,” Graham said.