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‘We cannot stay at this level of stress forever,’ ambulances never sent to hundreds of New Orleans EMS callers

Updated: May. 6, 2021 at 10:33 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The City of New Orleans’ EMS actively works to recruit and hire more employees, regularly posting on social media.

It is a strained workforce dealing with even more pressures while managing COVID-19 cases.

“We cannot stay at this level of stress forever,” said Dr. Emily Nichols, Director of New Orleans EMS. “It’s been a lot of time and energy and our responders are fatigued. And the truth is it is affecting our workforce at this time.”

Nichols says to reach a full staff of 160 people, she needs to fill 14 vacancies. To help manage, administrative employees sometimes fill in. “We’re doing whatever we can,” said Nichols. “It’s always a balance of your administrative duties and trying to support the response. And so, sometimes it really does impact the response but other times it’s just to help morale, so our team knows we’re all trying to get through this together.”

Through a public records request, FOX 8 learns how the shortage impacts those in emergencies.

At the end of 2020, EMS received 1,202 calls for medical service but could not immediately send an ambulance to 170. The problem seems to grow throughout 2021, the week of April 4th, there were 1,372 service calls – this time 319 did not see an ambulance. Two weeks later, EMS dispatchers took 1,367 calls but an ambulance didn’t immediately show up to 318 of those calls, no units available to help.

“That’s a really significant number and so we are everyday moving people around to try and accommodate so that we can ensure we have the number of ambulances on the street,” Nichols said. The agency says EMS personnel eventually will show up to a call if the person still needs to be transported to the hospital, but it could take minutes or hours. This is when the department leans on 9-1-1 dispatchers.

“They’re constantly gathering that information,” Nichols explains. “They even do call backs to whomever has called 911 saying, ‘how are you doing now? We know an ambulance hasn’t been able to make it to you but how are you doing,’ to make sure that someone is not getting worse while we’re still trying to navigate and figure out how we can get an ambulance quickly.”

She says while the number of unavailable ambulances fluctuates. It has gotten worse as EMS loses personnel for various reasons, “some persons are leaving the city. Some people are leaving medicine all together. Some people are choosing to go back to school for different degrees,” Nichols said. “When you think about the number of calls, we have coming in over a 24-hour period and the time it takes for one ambulance to respond to each call, the number doesn’t pan out without adding increased work to our already fatigued providers.”

In a news conference last week announcing loosening restrictions, Mayor Cantrell said the shortage in EMS personnel is a major reason why she has not issued any permits for fall festivals.

“You know our city is second to none when it comes to managing large events but that’s because of what the strength of our public safety team brings to those events,” said Cantrell. “EMS is hard hit. And so, it’s a concern so it’s not just looking at public safety through one agency, it’s looking at public safety through all agencies which are essential to keeping this city safe during an event.”

Nichols admits she is a bit hesitant to committing EMS coverage for future events. She says a number of factors are at play, including how many people will attend, the location, and if there is alcohol for sale.

“All of that has to be considered with every year, with every event,” Nichols said. “That’s really what we’re looking at now and again towards the fall as we anticipate things are going to ramp up and we have to be ready.”

But before she and the city think about fall events, Nichols wants to hire more personnel.

The department has 40 EMS ambulances in its fleet, 17 are out of service. 3 Sprint SUVs are not up for use, leaving 18 working SUVs.

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