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ABC12 investigates: why is Genesee County’s ambulance shortage becoming worse?

Since March 2021, the county’s ambulance availability has been at a “critical status” every day, multiple times a day.
Updated: Jun. 18, 2021 at 5:35 PM EDT
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GENESEE COUNTY, Mich. (WJRT) - (6/18/21) - “Who would ever expect in today’s era that you pick up and dial 911, and we don’t have an ambulance to send to you?” asked Genesee County 911′s Deputy Director Tim Jones.

It’s a problem Genesee County’s been dealing with for months.

ABC12 first brought it to the community’s attention in January.

At that point, the county had experienced about 15 days over a 3-month period where there were not enough ambulances to respond to the community’s calls for help.

Our Ann Pierret has been keeping an eye on the issue  and continues our investigation.

It shows the problem has only become worse.

Friday’s stats weren’t available at air time. But a report from Genesee County 911 shows the ambulance availability was at what’s called ‘critical status’ three times Thursday.

That’s the new norm as of March. It’s an issue every day, multiple times a day.

When Genesee County 911 notices they’re in a “critical status” with only five ambulances available to respond to a call, the new RAVE Alert System is activated.

“It goes out via text, phone call and also by email notifying everyone that we have now reached a critical status here within the county,” Jones explained.

And that’s when Jones adds to his list, the EMS Availability Issue report. It details when dispatchers have had five ambulances or less since October 31, 2020. Jones also adds when they were able to cancel the RAVE alert.

The longest that’s lasted, Jones said, was 6 hours.

Looking through, ABC12 counted 21 days since Halloween when the County had zero units available to respond. It happened twice this week.

“That weighs heavily on ‘em. These people are here to get help to everybody. And we can’t send it,” Jones said. “I mean, we get very creative!”

The creative solutions include calling in out-of-county ambulances or pulling an ambulance from a scene it may not be needed at.

Jones wants to make it clear that if you’re in a life-threatening situation someone will come. And, that emergency responder will wait with you until an ambulance gets there to transport you to the hospital.

The longest someone’s waited in that situation?  Jones said the closest ambulance was 20 miles away.

For a non-life threatening call, he shared that someone had to wait a full hour once.

Jones added one cause of this issue is the average number of medical calls per month increased by a thousand in April, May and June this year.

“My concern is somebody’s going to lose a life during this crisis and that,” Jones paused. “I would never ever encourage people that need emergency help to try to drive themselves. But that’s, that’s a concern.”

So what’s causing this shortage?

We told you in January it’s believed COVID -19 protocols are slowing crews down, from getting patients into the hospital to cleaning the rig after they’re transported.

There’s also a belief hiring more EMTs to run the ambulances will improve the problem.

But at the end of the day, the people who do the work said the system overall needs to completely change.

“Our hands are kind of tied right now, because we just don’t have the individuals to put on the road to make it better,” said Executive Director of the Genesee County Medical Control Authority, Bruce Trevithick.

He oversees the EMS system and explained there are plenty of ambulances, just not enough employees.

Once again the pandemic is blamed for that -- from people leaving the field because of it to training programs being canceled during it.

“So now we’re seeing that timeframe in place where those people were supposed to graduate and be on the road, now didn’t graduate and we don’t have them,” Trevithick said.

He expects now that programs are running again, within 6 months, the shortage will happen less frequently.

“I don’t think that the problem can be that easily isolated, I think it’s a component,” Kolby Miller said.

He’s been an EMT in the area since 1988, worked at Medstar for the last 20 years and now runs it.

From his side of things, he said the entire system needs to be redesigned.

“There was a belief a long time ago that no matter what, in the ambulance world, we always had to send the closest ambulance. Now, we don’t use the same logic for police, we don’t use the same logic for fire,” he explained.

Miller believes every township or city needs to be directly contracted with an ambulance company to put a stop to the shortage. That’s how it’s done in the other 7 counties he services across the state.

“Once that happens, then, then we can start investing in quality patient care,” he added.

Miller said until that happens, there will continue to be shortages. It just may not be as drastic once the COVID-19 pandemic is in the rearview mirror.

Jones shared with ABC12 that besides the creation of the RAVE alert system keeping everyone involved informed, a committee meets weekly to discuss long-term fixes to the ambulance system. It’s made up of elected leaders, police and fire chiefs and EMS personnel.

Miller said he’s just now been invited to be a part of the conversation. But, he’s already working with two communities in Genesee County, planning to activate his redesign of the system -- as the only company that serves them.

There are ways the community can help. The Genesee County Medical Control Authority asks if you can drive yourself safely to the hospital, please do so. Be patient if you have to wait, understanding the crews and 911 dispatchers are doing the best they can. And finally, if you’re looking to become an EMT or are retired and want to get back into, go for it!

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