Durham County EMS confirms drop in available ambulances as uncovered in recent I-Team report

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Wednesday, January 18, 2023
Durham County EMS confirms drop in available ambulances
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Durham County EMS officials confirmed with the ABC11 I-Team that their fleet of ambulances has been reduced.

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Durham County EMS officials confirmed with the ABC11 I-Team that their fleet of ambulances has been reduced.

On Monday, the I-Team spoke anonymously with a Durham EMS paramedic who said ambulances are increasingly falling into disrepair and leaving the department with limited resources to respond to emergency calls.

"We're one car wreck, one shooting away from not having anybody to respond to be able to transport truly sick or injured people to the hospital," they said.

Since the investigation Monday, other anonymous sources have reached out echoing similar concerns.

"A few of the trucks even shake violently while driving. This is a very unsafe issue," one wrote to the I-Team.

Another source wrote, "We are no way catching up with staffing either. EMS is on a sinking ship in Durham County."

Durham County EMS declined to speak on camera but submitted a two-page written response to address the concerns.

"The health, safety and wellbeing of Durham County residents and visitors is at the core of our mission as Emergency Medical Services providers," County EMS officials wrote. "While it has been reported that our fleet has experienced some challenges, we want the community to know we are doing our best to lessen any impact to our ability to respond to emergency calls."

Multiple EMS sources told the I-Team that the number of available ambulances in the county has dropped to as low as seven units over the past week.

"So today we have 10 functioning ambulances on the street when we're supposed to have 19," the paramedic told the I-Team on Monday. "So what do you call that? 50% availability?"

County officials said they aim to staff 18 units during the day and 12 at night. They did not confirm how low the number of available ambulances has dropped to. Officials did confirm that the reason for the reduction in units is due to a shortage of in-house mechanics to service the units and the current reliance on outside dealerships.

"The challenge in keeping mechanics employed is not limited to county government. Area dealerships and independent shops also report having significant issues with both recruiting and retaining qualified mechanics," Durham EMS officials wrote.

WATCH: 'Ambulances are literally falling apart'

Officials also said supply chain issues have extended the timeline for units to order new ambulances. The time to manufacture a new ambulance has gone from a maximum of six months to two years, according to county officials.

"What's happening in Durham is happening everywhere where even good systems that have planned ahead to replace ambulances on a regular basis, for the past two years, they haven't been able to get ambulances," explained Michael Ward, a former EMS operations consultant and current EMS operations professor at the University of Maryland.

Ward said ambulances need to be replaced every 4-7 years. According to one Durham EMS paramedic, many of Durham's ambulances are around 8 years old. Ward pointed to a rise in the cost of units and shortages that have caused more departments to operate with aging fleets.

"For right now, nobody is having an easy time getting an ambulance," Ward explained.

The I-Team did reach out to neighboring counties to see if they were experiencing similar challenges servicing ambulances. Only Johnson County responded and said they did experience delays in getting new ambulances but they have not had a shortage of in-service ambulances within the department.

WATCH: Triangle-area cities, counties pay $30 million in overtime as staffing remains a challenge

Ward said while numerous external factors are impacting EMS departments across the country, they do come with an impact on employees and residents.

"The problem is at some point the ambulances have to be replaced. When they run out of transport units then we run out of transport units. Either they contract with private ambulances to come in and provide backup -- that's one option that many places do. That's very expensive," he said. Ward also said private ambulance companies are running into the same issues of supply and staffing.

The resources issue is compounded nationwide by an ongoing staffing issue.

The American Ambulance Association reported in 2022 that EMS turnover increased by 6% last year and a majority of positions went unfilled due to low pay or unqualified candidates.

"It is a real challenge right now," Ward said speaking to nationwide challenges. "Those poor providers that are on those beat up old ambulances that are working their butts off, aren't making a lot of money, seeing a lot of sick people in another surge of COVID right now, no wonder they are frustrated."

WATCH: Number of times that zero ambulances available in Wake Co. increased in 2022, data shows

Ward said fixing the current situation isn't so simple.

"There is no white shining knight out there that can fix this," Ward said. "I'm sorry, unfortunately, that is the best answer I can give. It's not a very good answer at all and I wish I could give you something more positive."

Durham County officials did approve a $2 million EMS budget increase this past year to help make paramedic salaries competitive with nearby agencies.

"The Emergency Medical Services Division is also experiencing significant employee recruitment and retention issues, and for this reason, the approved budget includes a salary adjustment for front-line EMS employees. This increase is necessary to retain current staff -- as employees are leaving for more competitive salaries in surrounding communities -- as well as to recruit new employees," the county budget stated.

Durham County EMS officials said they are further working to lessen the impacts by running every available ambulance and when they have the crews without an ambulance they send paramedics in a quick-response vehicle.

"This ensures that an EMS crew can respond, assess, and begin treating patients while awaiting the arrival of an ambulance for transport," they wrote.

They also said they are continuing to partner with neighboring counties to assist when they are able.

"At the end of the day, we will continue to address these challenges to ensure that our residents receive the emergency medical services they require," officials stated.

ABC11 also reached out to all County Commissioners and none responded to the I-Team's calls and emails regarding this public safety concern.

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