Wake County EMS had a record number of calls in May, with more than 10,000.
"We saw a pretty significant cut in our call volume back in March 2020, April 2020," said Wake County EMS Deputy Director & Chief of Operations Seth Komansky. "Now, we're starting to see a pretty significant increase, almost a 30% increase from last March till now."
All of this as EMS departments across the nation are facing staff shortages: Wake County EMS is down 20 people. Meanwhile, Johnston County EMS has eight vacancies.
"We always want more staff," Komansky said. "The goal should always be fully-staffed, 100%. But that's not the reality of EMS as an industry across the country. Short-staffed and staffing challenges and EMS happened pre-COVID. That was pre-COVID and it's been a long-standing challenge."
According to data from Johnston County EMS, the agency responded to three-and-a-half times more calls for help in Wake County from January through May of this year compared to the same time last year.
"We always assure that Johnston County is covered first, so we have the administrative levels in place, that when we receive that request, we check and make sure that we can accommodate that, without sacrificing coverage in Johnston County," Johnston County EMS Deputy Director Josh Holloman said. "And then if we can, if we have the resources available, we're happy to go assist Wake County or any surrounding county."
Holloman said there is an overall increase in call volume.
"We have far surpassed our pre-COVID level for call volume," Holloman said. "To give an example, we were doing an average of 80 to 90 calls per day in Johnston County, and recently we're averaging 100 calls a day, and up to as many as 130 calls per day. So we're seeing a significant increase across the board."
Wake County EMS said there is an ebb and flow to requests for help between bordering counties and that Wake County is not relying on Johnston or any county to respond to calls.
"The way EMS works, there is a natural progression with mutual aid across county lines, and we will go into Johnson County as often as they come to us," Komansky said. "I don't think we are using Johnston County more now than previously and vice versa, I don't think we're going into Johnston County more often than they previously used us."
Wake County EMS said Johnston County responded to calls in Wake County 57 times from Jan. 1, 2020, to June 1, 2021. Forty-five of those 57 calls were instances when a Johnston County unit was the only ambulance responding. Twelve were multi-unit calls, where Wake County needed an additional ambulance.
During the same period, Wake County responded to 44 calls in Johnston County as the single responding ambulance, according to Wake County EMS. The agency responded to 157,000 total calls during this timeframe.
To try to fill open positions, Komansky said they recruit in various ways, including programs with high schools and community colleges. But he said the pandemic affected recruitment.
"Internally, we are working through that pipeline," Komansky said. "We did not see as many paramedics graduate-EMTs & paramedics graduate this past year as we have in previous years, because of COVID."
Komansky said there may be additional reasons for the increased call volume now, such as Wake County population growth and people neglecting regular checkups during the pandemic, which may have turned into more serious health issues requiring medical attention.
ABC11 asked about response times.
"We've been able to manage the call volume and we still have an appropriate response time," Holloman said. "So our goal is to be less than 12 minutes, on average, and on average we're less than nine minutes throughout the county."
Komansky said nine out of 10 times, they'll arrive at scenes with an ambulance in 13 minutes or less for critical calls, such as strokes, heart attacks, major motor vehicles.
For lower priority and non-emergency calls, response times are about 17 minutes nine out of 10 times, but Komansky said it's usually less than that.
He admits response times have increased slightly.
"When you look at the call volume rise, you see those response times increase a little bit," Komansky said. "It's just available units. It's available response times and as units decrease because of call volume increase, you have to drive a further distance. With the population in this area, you see longer response times because of the challenges with the traffic."
Johnston County Emergency Services Data
2020 Calls in Wake County:
- January: 0
- February: 0
- March: 5
- April: 1
- May: 3
2021 Calls in Wake County:
- January: 4
- February: 6
- March: 1
- April: 12
- May: 10