Staff Shortages Affecting EMSA Response Times

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Emergency Medical Services Authority — Oklahoma’s largest provider of pre-hospital emergency medical care — is experiencing severe labor shortages and slower response times. (Photo courtesy of EMSA)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Ambulance response times are suffering as the Emergency Medical Services Authority is impacted both directly and indirectly by COVID-19.

Workforce shortages that all frontline healthcare providers have faced for years have increased, along with the physical demands and stress brought on by the pandemic, said Christopher Jenkins, acting chief operating officer of the EMSA.

“It’s a tough industry to break into,” Jenkins said. “We’ve seen big drops.”

EMSA serves more than 1.1 million residents in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metropolitan areas. It currently operates 100 ambulances with 54 paramedics fewer than Jenkins would like to have. Even half that number of additional paramedics would make a big difference, he said.

Understaffing and slow turnaround times in hospitals have resulted in longer response times, even in critical situations like heart attacks, strokes, and traumatic collisions with vehicles.

In Oklahoma City, Edmond and Tulsa, EMSA is required to respond to these Priority 1 calls within 11 minutes 90% of the time.

“It’s a daily challenge. It’s gotten harder and harder over the last year to do that,” Jenkins said.

EMSA said it only met that goal 55% of the time in Oklahoma City — with an average response time of more than 17 minutes — in October.

Meanwhile, call volume and hospital arrival delays are increasing.

“This month so far we’re tied for breaking records since the start of the pandemic,” Jenkins said. “The biggest problem is sometimes the emergency room is full of people who need to be admitted.”

The EMSA team routinely has to wait an hour or two until the patient is transferred from the ambulance stretcher to a hospital bed before they can respond to another call. Jenkins said the longest delay at an Oklahoma City hospital so far was six hours.

Like all businesses, the cases of COVID-19 have also reduced their workforce. Jenkins said EMSA had 45 staff with the virus or being tested on Wednesday and he expects the number to grow exponentially over the next week or two.

With the number of licensed paramedics and emergency medical technicians, or paramedics, declining during the pandemic, EMSA began training in-house to develop their own.

Paramedics are trained to become paramedics and people are recruited to train as paramedics.

The vast majority of EMSA crews consist of a paramedic and an EMT, Jenkins said. But a small number are now staffed with two paramedics who can respond to non-life-threatening calls under agreements passed by the Oklahoma and Tulsa city councils in November.

The idea is to have paramedics more available to respond to the most serious situations.

About 147,000 Oklahoma City single-family households, or 70 percent, have opted in to partake in the ambulance service for a monthly fee of $3.65 charged to their utility bill.

With the current response time, Jenkins said people who don’t think they need hospital care could get faster treatment at an urgent care clinic or by calling a helpline.

For those who call 911, EMSA will provide instructions over the phone and get to the scene as soon as possible, he said.

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