Ambulance Shortage

The Chicago City Council has ordered the Chicago Fire Department to investigate an apparent shortage of ambulances and paramedics. We talk with former Chicago firefighter Ald. Nick Sposato (36th) about the order.

Read an interview with Better Government Association investigative reporter Patrick Rehkamp about the implications of fewer ambulances in the city.

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City Council has ordered an investigation into the fire department’s apparent shortage of ambulances and paramedics. Why do you think this issue is being addressed now?

I hope it’s because of the stories we’ve done with CBS-2. We highlighted lengthy ambulance delays anywhere from up to a half hour or over which could obviously put lives at risk. The state standard is for ALS care to be on the scene from dispatch to arrival. There are certain cases where an ALS [Advanced Life Support] vehicle is on the scene but we’ve seen cases where ambulances take much longer even when they’re needed to transport serious patients to the hospital. Getting patients with more severe injuries to the hospital is most important.

What has been the fire department’s response to the criticism?

It’s been different when talking to them. Essentially they’re telling us they don’t need any more ambulances and they’re looking to convert other lesser-equipped ambulances to handle more life-threatening injuries. They addressed overtime so they’re looking to hire more paramedics. They are also looking at where they are stationed so they can get to the areas quicker.

You mentioned hiring more paramedics was a part of their response. The department yields a significant population of overtime employees. Is understaffing a problem?

I think so. They’re hiring more now so that gives an implication that they don’t have enough paramedics. The major problem with this is the potential for burnout. If you’re working significant shifts back to back, you can burn out pretty easily.

What are some of the major problems with the city’s ambulance shortage?

We’ve been doing stories on this for a while so we’ve seen the number of miles accruing on these ambulances. It’s pretty significant because they cause the vehicles to break down, and they would break down on patients. Or vehicle problems will force the paramedics to take the patients to the wrong hospital to avoid problems while driving. We’ve seen cases where doors fall off and tires popped on ambulances. But most importantly, morale is down among paramedics. We’ve talked to staff in the department and this is something they find really aggravating.

The BGA also reported the city issued a memo urging dispatchers to soft-pedal problems with the shortage. Why is that?

Well, the Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC), the department that issued the memo, said it was standard protocol to use appropriate language. It certainly seems very convenient the memo went out shortly after our story ran. Some in the department think it was intentional because they wanted to watch what was being heard over the scanners.

What are the best solutions for solving this problem?

I think they need to take a strong look at taking basic life support to advanced life support on these ambulances. They should also take a look at being able to track response times. They should look at the responses during the times of day, neighborhoods, etc.; that way they can see where they might be able to address these problems. It’s been an interesting issue to watch. Hopefully the aldermen are able to get some answers that we weren’t able to get.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

~ Marc Vitali contributed to this report.

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