Tough Questions Regarding Ambulance Response In Buffalo

4:59 PM, May 22, 2012   |    comments
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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Rural/Metro is defending its ambulance service in Buffalo after complaints followed a delayed response earlier this year.

In February, 2 On Your Side reported on a person at the downtown library who called 911 regarding seizures yet he ended up waiting more than 45 minutes for an ambulance.

2 On Your Side filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request for all the "Ambulance Unavailability" reports from dispatchers over an 8-month period from July 2011 to February 2012. The library incident was not isolated. In fact, there were 279 incidents in which dispatchers did not have access to an ambulance, leading to delays ranging from 1 minute up to nearly an hour.

  • January 29 - Difficulty Breathing - 33-minute wait
  • December 31 - Assault Victim - 35-minute wait
  • October 12 - Diabetic - 35-minute wait
  • October 8 - Cardiac Arrest - 36-minute wait
  • September 2 - Not Alert - 41-minute wait

Rural/Metro said those hand-written documents are unreliable and some of the response times are contradicted by the company's record-keeping. However, Division General Manager Jay Smith acknowledged that some calls may experience delays if they are "cold", which means the patients do not require immediate action.

Such was the case at the library. A source tells 2 On Your Side the patient wasn't actually experiencing seizures, and because firefighters on scene didn't elevate the call, the final paramedic-level ambulance was held in case a more serious call came in. Smith confirmed there were "hot" calls during the 45-minute wait.

"We do have to prioritize what the emergency (is) and the need of the call at the given time," Smith said. "And we think the system that we have in place is handling that the best that we can possibly do."

But Councilman David Franczyk questions why even a "cold" call should take nearly an hour. He proposed, and the Council adopted, a resolution calling Rural/Metro to appear in chambers to explain its response times.

"They have to show us that they have enough manpower, that there's not people being burnt out on overtime, (and) that there are enough vehicles," Franczyk said.

Smith said he welcomes the opportunity to address any concerns from members of the Common Council. Rural/Metro's exclusive contract to provide ambulance service to the City expires July 1, and the Council will have to approve any new deal.

Both Smith and Franczyk agreed that there are unnecessary strains on the EMS system caused by people who misuse or abuse 911.

In 2009, 2 On Your Side profiled a Buffalo man who used an ambulance more than 600 times over a 3-and-a-half year period.

"Some people just abuse the system," Councilman Franczyk said. "(They think) it's a cab ride somewhere, you know, because it's frivolous."

There's also the issue that when ambulances make it to hospitals, there can often be a backlog, requiring the EMTs and paramedics to stay there for an hour or longer waiting to transfer their patients to physicians.

"The more volume that people use -- either use us to go to the ERs or just go into the ERs themselves, obviously that has ... a trickle-down effect on the way we're able to deploy resources as well," Smith said.

Despite the challenges, and despite the lengthy wait times that we profiled, Smith said he is proud of Rural/Metro's record in Buffalo.

In 2011, Rural/Metro records show that 94% of the time, an ambulance was on scene at cardiac calls in under 9 minutes, which is an industry standard.

The overall response time for all calls, according to Rural/Metro, was 7 minutes, 7 seconds.

Rural/Metro officials will likely go before the Council sometime in June. 2 On Your Side will continue to follow this story.

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