The number of available ambulances in Durham County has been dwindling for months, but sources tell the ABC11 I-Team that the issue came to head this month.
"The ambulances are literally just falling apart. And we they can't keep them up," said one paramedic with Durham County EMS who chose to speak out anonymously to protect their job.
Multiple EMS sources told the I-Team that the number of available ambulances in the county has dropped to as low as seven units.
"So today we have 10 functioning ambulances on the street when we're supposed to have 19," the paramedic said. "So what do you call that? 50% availability?"
That number dropped down to nine available units by early Monday afternoon.
"We were on this call and our transmission went out so we're at the scene but we cannot transport," an EMS worker is heard telling dispatch Monday afternoon, based on scanner traffic.
The paramedic explained most of the county's ambulances are eight years old. They said a lack of routine maintenance and supply chain delays for parts is leading to more and more ambulances going out of use.
"The county pushed off or delayed ordering ambulances and now we're in a situation where the backlog is anywhere from 18 to 36 months to get brand new ambulances," they said. "We've been behind the eight ball since the beginning of COVID and now it's catching up to us."
The county used to have two in-house mechanics but early this month that dropped to zero; meaning they now have to rely on a third-party dealer for repairs, according to one paramedic.
The paramedic told the I-Team the consequence of this is the county is getting 911 calls that it can't send an ambulance to or callers are forced to wait extended amounts of times. However, so far, these only people calling with a non-life-threatening need have been impacted, but the paramedic is concerned about the future.
"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.
And the staff are impacted too. Fewer ambulances leave EMS running from one call to the next with minimal time for breaks.
"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," the Durham County paramedic said. "I don't know what the answer is now."
The paramedic said the county has started staffing SUVs with EMS workers and all the items that would be in an ambulance. These vehicles aren't able to transport patients but can respond to lower-priority calls.
While Durham County can call for assistance from surrounding counties, the paramedic said that help is not always reliable.
In addition to diminishing ambulances, staffing across city and county public safety departments remains a challenge.
The latest data from the Durham Emergency Communications Center shows still half of the operator positions remain vacant. This is at the same time that the number of calls continues to grow. Data shows 911 calls were up 6% in December 2022 compared to December 2021. Both factors combined leave fewer and fewer calls getting answered in a timely manner. Eight-one percent of calls were answered in 10 seconds or less in December; the lowest percentage since July.
Durham Mayor Pro Tempore Mark-Anthony Middleton said he had not heard of the decrease in available ambulances and believes there is no risk to safety in the city or county.
"It's no secret that we've been having staffing issues as have other municipalities and corporate entities," Middleton said. "911 call takers, police and fire, EMS and other positions as well, but I've received no notification that our response posture has been compromised or diminished."
Middleton pointed to the layered approach the county and city have when responding to emergencies that allow shortages to be covered.
"People need to understand that the overwhelming number of emergency medical emergencies are responded to by our fire department, which is well equipped and they're out working today along with EMS," Middleton explained. "So there's overlap and there are layers to our response. So when you hear a story that we may have as many ambulance working that may not be the optimal place where you want to be but that should not be interpreted that the city or county is in jeopardy."
He said 911 calls are being responded to and leaders are continuing to look for ways to fill vacant positions across departments.
"The staffing issue has not placed us in a position where the city is in danger," Middleton said.
As leaders work to close some of these gaps, one Durham paramedic suggested the county adopt a system that diverts non-emergency calls away from EMS. A similar system was launched in Wake County last year and something similar is being tried with Durham police calls.
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