OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – When you call 911 in an emergency, you expect help to arrive fast.
In the Oklahoma City metro, patients are waiting longer than expected, more than an hour in some cases, for an ambulance to arrive.
It’s a complicated emergency medical response problem, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a recent Open Records Request, the Oklahoma City Fire Department arrives on the scene of an emergency in seven minutes, three seconds, on average.
Oklahoma City Police report that their officers arrive in five minutes, 45 seconds, on average.
Emergency Medical Services Authority (EMSA) is expected to get to the scene of a life-threatening emergency in 11 minutes or less, at least 70 percent of the time.
However, the ambulance service has been running late in recent months.
EMSA acknowledges their units have been taking longer and longer to respond.
Last month, the average response time for Priority 1 (life-threatening) calls was 11 minutes, 28 seconds.
The average response time for Priority 2 (non-life-threatening) calls was 18 minutes, 14 seconds.
“We’re not as timely as we want to be or as we need to be,” said John Graham, EMSA Chief of Operations.
An analysis of EMSA records, provided by the EMSA Trust, shows 40 calls in December of 2020 where a patient waited more than an hour for the ambulance to arrive.
Police and fire crews around the metro are often forced to wait with a patient long after their work is done.
In most emergency situations, the ambulance is the only appropriate way for a patient to get to the hospital.
The Oklahoma City Council is aware of the delays.
According to Deputy City Attorney Wiley Williams, who is also the Chairman of the EMSA Board, the current situation is disappointing.
“We’re not happy,” said Williams. “The board is not happy. We’re dealing with what we have to deal with. It’s a nationwide issue.”
Indeed, ambulance delays around the country are another disastrous consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ambulance services around the U.S. are dealing with hospital systems which cannot admit patients fast enough, particularly when the medical centers are filling up with cases of COVID-19.
All of the major hospitals in Oklahoma City are experiencing delays when it comes to the triage of patients arriving in the emergency department, according to the Medical Director of Emergency Services at SSM St. Anthony’s, Dr. Chad Borin.
“If they’re not in need of truly emergent life-saving care at that moment, then they may have to wait a little until they’re seen and removed from an EMS cot,” said Dr. Borin.
Last month, EMSA logged 600 incidents of patients waiting at the hospital in an ambulance while the ER prepared a bed.
“When we deliver a patient to the hospital, we cannot abandon that patient until the hospital has a bed,” explained Williams. “So, that can tie up an ambulance for four to five hours under current conditions.”
EMSA confirms one case where a patient waited six hours to be offloaded from the ambulance and admitted to the hospital.
The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed every facet of healthcare.
But for EMSA, the challenge couldn’t have come at a worse time, in the middle of a transition of ownership.
EMSA parted ways with the nationwide ambulance service which operated the service for years, American Medical Response (AMR).
AMR and EMSA are now embroiled in a legal battle over profits.
On Dec. 1, 2020, the EMSA Board voted to allow EMSA to take over day-to-day operations of the ambulance service.
New management claims they inherited a company on the brink of disaster, and the ambulance service is now trying to stay above water and make up ground in a time when conditions are worse than ever.
EMSA provided KFOR with all requested records for this report.
The ambulance service appears to be transparent in their efforts to remedy documented delays.
EMSA has launched a new program offering $5,000 and $10,000 signing bonuses for EMTs and paramedics who join the team, in an effort to increase staffing to pre-pandemic levels.