Tight budget could mean delays with ambulance service

(WMC-TV) - An ambulance could mean the difference between life and death during an emergency, but on some days in Memphis there are no ambulances available.

Listening to just three hours of dispatch recordings from one recent day of service, Action News 5 heard dispatchers run out of ambulances twice.

According to a paramedic, who wishes to remain anonymous, "It is disheartening to say the least when we hear the message come across the radio. We feel abandoned by those who are supposed to support the employees in the field."

The paramedic says Memphis runs out of ambulances daily.

"City medics have been told by supervisors to utilize as few ambulances as possible on scenes with multiple patients due to the lack of available ambulances," the paramedic said.

Action News 5 asked EMS Deputy Chief Gary Ludwig to respond.

"Fire based EMS is experiencing new challenges that we've never experienced in the past,' Ludwig said. "It's what we call 'a perfect storm' coming together."

'A perfect storm' made up of aging baby boomers and budget cuts.

"We're asked to do more with less," Ludwig said.

A study by Berkshire and Associates in 2007 recommended Memphis have 40 ambulances. Memphis currently has only 33 in service.

"It would be nice if the city of Memphis could print their own money," Ludwig said. "Then, sure, we could have 40 ambulances. "But we are challenged financially."

But what about this...the Action News 5 Investigators discovered at least five ambulances sitting in a parking lot downtown, not being used.

"Those are our spare ambulances," Ludwig said. "Obviously, we need people to operate those ambulances. I don't know if you're aware, but we're going through a budget deduction now."

Having no ambulances available sometimes means longer response times for those that are in service. On the same day Action News 5 heard dispatchers say there were no ambulances available, records show it took ambulances that were operating between 21 and 30 minutes to get to a scene."

A paramedic said, "A large number of our callers are short of breath. Try holding your breath, then look down at your watch and ask yourself, 'How important are a few minutes?'"

"There are delays sometimes," Ludwig said. "Sometimes, very rarely, but sometimes with an ambulance, but there is not a delay putting a paramedic on the scene."

Ludwig says paramedics on fire engines often respond to scenes first, and that many of the city's fire engines are equipped with Advanced Life Support. Whether you get one depends on where you are.

But a fire engine can't take you to a hospital.

"I want to emphasize our average response time to get an ambulance to the scene is under eight minutes 90% of the time," Ludwig said.

Since our initial interview with Ludwig, he has made changes.

"We put two ambulances in service during the heat wave," he said. "That prompted me to think, heck, when we have extra people we can do that on a regular basis. Yesterday was the first day to do it. It is now part of our policy to put two ambulances in service when we have extra people on a given day."

Extra ambulances, that until the Action News 5 Investigators got involved, were sitting unused in a downtown parking lot.

Ludwig said the city can also fall back on private ambulance companies, but a paramedic we spoke to said there have been occasions recently when there were no private units available.

Still, Ludwig strongly believes the city is well positioned to handle any medical emergency - even during periods with increased calls.

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