The ABC11 I-Team obtained new data that reveals a deeper look into how public safety response in Wake County has changed since the pandemic.
"EMS people started leaving. Dispatchers started leaving and we've been in a downward spiral pretty much since the world reopened," said a 911 operator with the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center. The operator spoke with the I-Team anonymously to protect their job but has worked with the center for years and said the situation keeps getting worse. The operator spoke mostly of the situation within the communications center but said the strain is felt across public safety.
"It keeps feeling like we have to be hitting rock bottom at any second and it just keeps getting worse," the operator said. "We're all emotionally drained. We're all overworked. We're all exhausted."
The operator said low staffing levels across all the city and county public safety departments has caused a ripple effect in response times and burnout.
"EMS is short and then we're getting yelled out because police can't get there fast enough because there aren't enough of them and then the ambulance didn't get there yet because there's not enough of them," the operator explained. "It's just making it harder on us to do our jobs because there's just so much more."
"Data obtained by the ABC11 I-Team shows this past year the situation got worse"
The average time the county was in E-Stat in 2018 was around 54 minutes with one time the county reporting E-stat for a max of eight hours, according to a previous I-Team investigation.
E-Stat or emergency status is when the county has 10 or fewer ambulances available. When the county is fully staffed it can run around 49 ambulances.
The 911 operator said Wake County use to hit E-Stat once or twice a month for an hour or so, but lately having fewer than 10 ambulances availability is a regular occurrence.
Data provided by Wake County showed this year the county was in E-Stat for 22 hours straight at one point.
And worse than 10 ambulances are none. Wake EMS reported it reached zero units available 148 times in 2022; 54 times more than in 2021. The county logged no instances of zero units available in 2019 or 2020.
Brian Brooks, assistant Chief of Wake County EMS, said the uptick in these instances is due to a dramatic increase in 911 calls.
EMS responded to over 123,000 calls for help in 2021. Brooks said this is around 10,000 to 12,000 more than past years.
"We weren't prepared for that," he admitted.
Brooks explained 'level zero' doesn't mean there isn't help available but it does mean the county needs to prioritize calls with higher levels of emergency.
"If a call came in and it was a high-priority call, we will pull the ambulances from a lower-acuity call," he said. "So yes, there are times that citizens are waiting for an extended amount of time for an ambulance. They need to understand that if you call them with a low-acuity complaint, it may be some time before we're able to get out there."
Brooks also said the county has faced massive staffing issues over the last year and a half with up to 85 open paramedic positions at one point.
These factors also drove up the number of times the county has had to rely on nearby jurisdictions. The number of mutual aid calls Wake EMS reported in 2021 jumped by 87%; up to 436 from 233 in 2020. So far in 2020, the county has issued 419 mutual aid calls.
"That doesn't count the times that we've asked and they said no," Brooks said.
While the county has always worked with other agencies to respond to emergency at the borders the quickest, Brooks said these numbers are also increasing because of the uptick in calls.
Another issue Wake EMS is facing is the supply chain
"We can't get vehicles. We can hire as many people that apply, as many certified people that can possible be hired, we can hire them all but if we went and tried to buy 20 ambulances tomorrow, we probably couldn't do it," he said.
On the staffing side, there are signs of optimism. Brooks said this month, 50 new employees will graduate and be ready to hit the streets.
"We are nearing the point where we shouldn't have to worry about the staffing issues anymore, he said.
Wake EMS has increased pay, which Brooks believes has made the county more competitive.
While Wake EMS expects to be fully staff by the end of the year, the 911 operator said the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center is still at a concerning level.
"Eight dispatchers are doing what 16 dispatchers should be doing," the operator said. "We have less staffing now than we did a year and a half ago."
They said while they love their job, without any relief in sight they are reaching their breaking point.
"I'm lost, and I'm stuck and I don't know what to do," the operator said. "At this point I have saved myself because I don't know how to save the center."