"It's not COVID calls:" Wake County EMS calls surge with no quick fix in sight

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Wake County EMS is understaffed and overworked, but that is not a new problem.

What is different now, however, is just how much more often people are calling 911 for an ambulance, which is ironic considering considering the criticism the crews get for being late and unreliable.

"We're all frustrated," Nicholas Naylor, a Wake County EMS paramedic, said to ABC11. "We're all frustrated, but at the end of the day with that frustration, we want to do what's right for the community and what's right for the people. That's something I would emphasize. We try to do what's right for people."

In May, Wake County for the first time ever tallied more than 10,000 calls to EMS, which amounts to at least 300 per day. The record-setting trends continued throughout the summer and now into the fall.

"With high call volume, you can only answer one call at a time," Naylor said.

That job, of course, is tougher with a shortage in EMTs and paramedics; though Wake County has a fleet of 49 ambulances, up to a dozen could be sitting in a garage every shift.

"The problem is not recruiting - the problem is applicants," Asst. Chief Brian Brooks said to ABC11. "So COVID shut down schools for a year. Those students did not graduate."

The staff shortage, Brooks added, is better described as a skills shortage.

"The one issue with staffing is we can't hire people that aren't certified. If the schools aren't producing people certified that passed through the class, we can't hire them at this point."

Fortunately, there have been reinforcements: ABC11 was the first to break the story of dozens of ambulances from FEMA to aid North Carolina communities, including Wake County.

"They are answering eight to 10 calls a day," Brooks said. "They're making an impact on the call volume. They're a welcome addition because our crews are tired."

Also aiding Wake County crews are units from neighboring counties which might be closer to the emergency than the nearest Wake County ambulance.

Indeed, peer reviews of Wake County EMS' performance continues to show a remarkable ability of the crews to meet or exceed national standards for Advanced Life Support (ALS), including cardiac events or gunshot wounds. Where the delays are happening, according to officials, are for low-acuity calls.

"Well you've got someone who is living and someone who just expired and time is of the essence," Naylor said of the dichotomy between a cardiac event and a broken bone. "We need to get someone to that cardiac arrest now because of the statistics. CPR saves lives."

According to Brooks, a key concern among staff is that the low-acuity calls are clogging up the system because of a myth patients have about a fast-track to the Emergency Room.

"Sometimes some of those people that are calling, they weren't sicker than they were, but it was their means of getting to the hospital. They think getting to the Emergency Room via ambulance was a faster way of getting to the back."

To keep more paramedics and other advanced-life-support-qualified crews available, Wake County for the first time this fall devoted two units just for Basic Life Support (BLS).

"The calls for twisted ankles, my throat hurts, ear hurts, and stuff like that," Brooks said. "So now we're able to preserve the paramedics for those high acuity calls. The chest pains, shortness of breath, car wrecks."

So far, the trial for BLS units is working--and it could be better if some of those other foundational issues are addressed.

"As a profession, yes, we need more people to go to school to become EMTs, paramedics so we can hire them. But we can't hire what's not applying. We are in a situation where we have to things drastically different."
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