EMSA, OKCFD change transport procedures for patients after paramedic shortage, COVID-19 increase call response time but not without controversy

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – With call numbers high and staff shrinking, EMSA officials are making changes with the Oklahoma City Fire Department that they say will make sure high priority patients get the best care in emergency situations – but not all are happy about the new procedures. 

EMSA officials say COVID-19 is making their crews wait longer at hospitals to put their patients in a bed and that is contributing to their response times being longer.

Officials say using fire crews to transport patients isn’t ideal, but it in the best interest of OKC residents.

“Even excellent systems experience stress and this is a time of stress,” said Dr. Jeffery Goodloe.

Summer is typically busy with more people out and about, but factor in the pandemic and calls are way up.

On June 27th, EMSA serviced 153 priority-1 cases when they typically see 70-80 on an average day.

“We only see those numbers when there is like a tornado or a major disaster or something, but we are now seeing those in normal day to day operations,” said Jim Winham, EMSA CEO.

Officials say a nationwide paramedic shortage has left them understaffed and respond times have gone up.

So now EMSA and the OKC Fire Department announcing new procedures and protocol.

They allow fire crews who have responded to an emergency and are waiting for an ambulance to arrive, the ability to make a call and get clearance to transport a high risk patient to a hospital themselves.

“We want to have a trigger mechanism for our personnel to have a plan to be able to take care of that person,” said OKC Fire Chief Richard Kelley.

“This is something that we wouldn’t normally do, we are not a licensed transport agency,” said Deputy Chief Mike Walker.

That’s why not all fire personnel are onboard with the change.

“Some members think, ‘oh they can just change their minds whenever they want,’” said Cameron Weems.

The President of the OKC Firefighters Local 157 says his members are referring to a call late last year when Major Corey Britt decided to transport a little girl with burns when EMSA didn’t arrive for 20 minutes. He was later demoted for not following protocol.

“He was in a stressful situation. He felt compelled to make a decision because he didn’t have an ambulance on the scene,” said Weems.

But OKC Fire officials say that case would not likely fall under this rule change.

“When you look at that situation with that patient, there was definitely a lot of pain, but not life threatening. This one that we are talking about today are life threatening. If we can’t get that person to the hospital it could be detrimental to their lives,” said Chief Kelley.

Firefight Union officials say they are confident they can step up and help the people of Oklahoma City.

Crews have done similar patient transport before in severe weather situations, but do they say EMSA needs to get more paramedics hired. EMSA officials confirm those efforts are underway.

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