RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – An increase in calls and a staffing shortage created the perfect storm for more instances of no ambulances on the road, according to Wake County EMS Assistant Chief Brian Brooks.
There were eight level-zero instances in November, which means no ambulances are free. Brooks said the situations typically don’t last very long.
On a Sunday afternoon in November, this call came in over emergency radio:
“Hey guys, this is central. Let us know if you do need EMS. We’re out of units right now, so we’re at level zero right now with EMS units.”
He said even in those situations, there will always be an ambulance available in an emergency. A “low system resource response” plan kicks in at 10 available ambulances. Dispatch starts triaging calls at five ambulances.
“If a heart attack happened and we were at level zero, somebody who was en route to another call would get pulled to go handle that heart attack because it’s a higher-level call,” Brooks said.
He said once the shift commander announces a level zero typically someone will mark “in-service,” such as a unit sitting at the hospital typing a report from a prior call.
When CBS 17 reported on the issue in May, Brooks said he knew of two level-zero occasions in his 15 years on the job.
He said May was the first time the department hit 10,000 calls in a month, with three instances of level zero. August was the first time Wake EMS hit 11,000 calls in a month, with 24 instances of level zero.
Below is the call volume for May through November with the level zero instances in parenthesis, according to Wake EMS.
- May: 10,203 (3)
- June: 10,075 (4)
- July: 10,495 (7)
- August: 11,135 (24)
- September: 10,204 (18)
- October: 10,356 (12)
- November: 9,670 (8)
Brooks said call volume has the biggest impact, but staffing shortages also play a role. He said the department has 63 vacancies out of just under 500 employees — a little higher than their target of a 10 percent vacancy rate.
“We need people,” he said. “We need people to apply. Well, we need people to go to school to join this profession.”
People who don’t have an emergency, but call for an ambulance when none are available might have to wait.
“We don’t want to deter anyone from calling 911 should they think it’s an emergency, but people have to understand that an emergency is an immediate threat to life and sometimes we get a lot of calls for non-emergency issues, and typically those are the people that are complaining because they’re the ones who end up waiting,” Brooks said. “The emergency calls are not waiting.”
The four FEMA ambulances that were helping respond to calls left on Tuesday.
Brooks said he does not think that will have a negative impact, noting that November was the first time since May the county had less than 10,000 calls.