Wait time for ambulances in NYC is the longest since the start of COVID-19

Ambulance response times in New York City are getting longer — reaching their highest levels since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic four years ago, Gothamist has found.

During the week of Memorial Day, the latest data available from the city, it took Emergency Medical Services an average of 12.81 minutes to respond to life-threatening medical emergencies and 28.31 minutes to show up to non-life threatening situations. That’s the longest on both counts since the middle of March 2020, when response times averaged 16.91 and 46.40 minutes, respectively. A 2017 study showed that nationally, the average EMS response times in urban areas is seven minutes.

The Memorial Day week wasn’t an anomaly: Lengthy responses to medical emergencies mirror annual trends observed in the city. The average time for an ambulance to arrive at a scene after being dispatched increased 69 seconds — to almost 11 minutes — in the fiscal year that ended last June, compared with two years before, according to the mayor’s management report.

And every month this year in New York, the time between dispatch and ambulance arrival is up compared to the same months last year, city data shows.

The delays are being felt by New Yorkers. When Ayesha Culmer found her neighbor in Hamilton Heights shot last month, she said a man was yelling at the assembled police officers: “What’s taking the ambulances so long? It’s six or seven minutes already, where are they?”

Another few minutes passed. Neighbors were beginning to put the injured woman in a car to take her to the hospital when someone announced that the ambulance had finally arrived, Culmer said. It was nearly 10 minutes after 911 was called.

“Everybody started running toward the ambulance with her,” said Culmer. “We just saw blood, we didn’t know where she’d really gotten hit at, whether she was bleeding internally. Everybody was just in a panic because you see your neighbor on the ground and you’re saying, ‘what is going on?’”

Emergency medical technicians say the likelihood of death increases the longer it takes for them to arrive. A 2020 analysis of ambulance response times in Saudi Arabia found that the odds of death after cardiac arrest doubled if the ambulance response time was longer than eight minutes.

New York City EMS of Operations Chief Michael Fields told Gothamist that a range of factors have contributed to the rise in response times:

  • Traffic: A record number of cars on the road has resulted in ambulances getting snarled in traffic. Fields said the proliferation of bike lanes in recent years means streets have narrowed, making it harder for first-responders to pass vehicles. New speed limits are also a problem, said Fields. “When you slow down the city, you slow the emergency response as well,” he noted.
  • Record call volume: There were a record-high 1.6 million calls for EMS services last year, with 1.7 million expected this year.
  • Emergency room delays: The number of available emergency rooms where ambulances can bring patients has declined, according to Fields.
  • E.R. staffing has likewise decreased. This leads to EMTs and paramedics spending more time at the hospitals before they can turn the patients over to hospital staff.

Unions and EMS members interviewed pointed to a different reason why ambulance response times have increased. They said low pay for those who ride ambulances and render lifesaving aid has yielded staffing shortages, turnover in the ranks and a relatively inexperienced workforce.

EMT salaries start at $39,386 annually. That’s less than the pay for an app delivery worker making the new city minimum wage of $19.56, plus tips, while working 40 hours a week.

“If you call 911 and complain that you have a stomach ache or have trouble breathing, you can wait anywhere from four to five hours for an ambulance to pick you up,” said Oren Barzilay, president of the union representing EMTs and paramedics. “For a heart attack or stroke, that can take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes. Those numbers are unacceptable.”

“People are simply dying because of it,” he added. “Response time has gone up, call volume has gone up and our resources have remained stagnant.”

Fields countered that assertion, saying, “we don’t have a staffing issue.”

“You give me more ambulances, you give me more people, we can definitely decrease response items,” he said. “But we have to be fiscally responsible. The mayor is responsible for the entire budget for the city.”

Fields shared some ideas for improving ambulance response times. He said the FDNY, which oversees EMS, is planning public service announcements to explain to New Yorkers when they should and shouldn’t call 911. “There are definitely other options out there other than calling 911,” said Fields, such as going to a local urgent care center.

About a third of ambulances dispatched through 911 are operated by local hospitals, not the FDNY, according to Fields. He said he is working to put EMS supervisors inside hospitals to help get those ambulance crews back out on the streets. He added that he is also planning to have EMTs use telehealth to communicate with doctors on the scene instead of spending the time transporting patients to hospitals.

Meanwhile, the FDNY is starting to use artificial intelligence technology to improve its emergency response times. Earlier this year, the department partnered with NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering to analyze emergency vehicle travel times and test potential solutions, such as modifying infrastructure and finding alternative routes.

But those solutions have yet to be implemented.

“For sure it’s getting worse,” said George Contreras, a paramedic for the last 30 years who teaches emergency management response at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “I work the streets, I can tell you.”

He said having more staff would reduce wait times because some EMS crews currently travel to multiple boroughs in one shift to accommodate the need. And higher pay would ensure that the workers stick around in the job rather than move on to firefighting for more money, as some do, Contreras said.

“The reality is the city has never ever provided 100% of the resources [for EMS],” he said.

Culmer, the Hamilton Heights resident whose neighbor was shot, said she wants the city to supply EMS with more resources.

“If there’s not enough people working where they can get around to everyone, can we really fault them?” she said. “They’re not omnipresent where they can be everywhere.”

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