DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Five months ago, ambulances were falling apart in Durham as first responders called attention to safety concerns in the county.
Now the ABC11 I-Team uncovered the county has taken steps to correct these issues, but it still faces some challenges ahead of the summer.
An aging fleet and lack of in-house mechanics led to a dwindling availability of units. In January, the ABC11 I-Team heard from inside sources who shared that the county was forced to operate with half the desired number of ambulances some days due to an increasing need for repairs.
"The physical ambulance is breaking down. It's just it's like an onion. There are so many layers to what has gone wrong. And now the citizens are paying the price and us employees are paying the price for something that could have been done six or seven or eight months ago," one Durham County paramedic shared in January 2023. "I don't know what the answer is now."
The I-Team obtained critical vehicle failure reports from Durham County that detail more than 40 instances in 2022 of major repairs needed for ambulances.
In many cases, paramedics said the ambulance would just stop accelerating or the engine would shut off. Other times, the doors would get jammed or the lights wouldn't turn on. In one extreme incident, the rear tires broke off the ambulance and flew 20 meters. The report said, "One hit a light pole and the other went into a person's yard."
These issues reportedly occurred on the way to calls or even when patients were inside the vehicle. About 19% of the reports said a patient was on board when the issue with the ambulance came up.
One paramedic shared anonymously with the I-Team that they'd been on a call with a patient where the ambulance broke down.
"The patient was very stable, but the belt broke and nothing you can do about that. So my partner had to pull the ambulance over. I had to wait for another ambulance to come to pick me and the patient up. But it did not have an adverse outcome. You know, it just got rerouted to come to help us out," they shared.
Back in January, Durham County EMS leaders told ABC11 in a statement, "We want the community to know we are doing our best to lessen any impact to our ability to respond to emergency calls."
Officials largely blamed the issue on external industry factors.
"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 in January.
However, in the months since the I-Team's report, both EMS officials and paramedics share that the situation has improved.
The county has filled the two in-house mechanic positions and obtained two new units.
"As the day-to-day and the routine maintenance, they've kept us on the road. And we now right now we show probably four to five spare units available each day. We will have an occasional day where we don't have any spares -- weekends are notorious for that," said Mark Lockhart, the Chief Paramedic for Durham EMS.
He explained these spare units are critical to keeping the county where is needs to be until the newer ambulances arrive.
"That takes some of the pressure off the existing fleet, but we'll still be maintaining those until we can get that fleet built up as well as the reserve fleet," he said.
Lockhart said the county should have nine new ambulances by the end of the year. He said in the meantime, more critical repair issues may surface simply due to the nature of use of the ambulances.
"Fast acceleration, you know, and it just it takes its toll. Those critical incidents really are typically few and far between. We certainly are not immune to having those, though," Lockhart said.
Staffing is another factor that has influenced the toll on paramedics and the number of ambulances the county can run.
The county's number of vacant positions doubled between 2021 and 2022 with EMS reporting a 21.7% vacancy rate at the end of last year.
Lockhart said Durham is also making strides in staffing as well. Around 10 people just graduated from an EMS academy and another 14 are set to begin in the coming weeks.
These efforts are noticeable for paramedics as well.
"It was very refreshing this week that we were able to staff 17 or 18 trucks between normal staffing and overtime. It was quite encouraging to kind of see that that's where we're trending again," a first responder anonymously shared.
They echoed their confidence in the county taking steps in the right direction.
"I think we're in a much better position than we were four months ago; much better. So I don't think the citizens have near (the amount) to be concerned about than they had January," the paramedic shared.
Lockhart reemphasized he is confident and comfortable with where the department is ahead of the surge in 911 calls this summer.
"I think as far as fleet goes, I think we're in a good spot. I think as far as staffing goes, again, there isn't an EMS service in this country that isn't having a staffing issue right now. I think the beauty of our effort here is not just in our expanding our recruitment effort but we really kind of sharpened our retention tools," he said.
Already, Durham responded to 5% more calls this year than in 2022, which makes the need for adequate staffing and resources that much more important.
Check out: ABC11 I-Team Stories