SPRINGFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM) -- State officials in Massachusetts confirmed to Western Mass News that emergency medical services aren’t considered essential services in the way that fire and police are.
Most towns still provide them, but what happens when you dial 911?
How long does it take for them to get there?
The amount of time that passes between dialing 911 and having an ambulance arrive in your driveway is critical in a medical emergency.
“The standard that most people in the industry have gone by is an eight-minute response time in an urban system,” Massachusetts Ambulance Association Board Member Brian Andrews said.
Andrews is a board member for the Massachusetts Ambulance Association, a trade organization for private EMS companies.
Western Mass News obtained through public record requests response times from the state for several different ambulance services, both public and private for the first six months of 2021.
Longmeadow Fire Department, a public ambulance service, had a median response time that hovered around eight minutes.
Action Ambulance, a private company serving Holyoke, had a median response time of seven minutes. These municipalities have similar population densities.
We also looked into the private ambulance companies serving Springfield, which has a much larger population.
National Ambulance Service hovered between 11 and 13 minutes per response.
American Medical Response or AMR averaged 10 minutes per call.
Comparing those numbers to another city with a similar population density we also requested response times from a private company in Worcester. MedStar averaged between 10 and 12 minutes per call during the same time period.
Andrews says there are many factors that can affect response times.
“The size of the service, the volume of the calls,” Andrews said.
But one of the biggest factors Andrews said is that that people just don’t want EMS jobs.
“Our industry is in crisis,” Andrews said. “If you truly believe the patient is having cardiac arrest, no I don’t think that we would want to settle for 13 minutes, but I think unless something changes drastically in our systems with the staffing problem, that’s going to become, you know, more a norm.”
We reached out to AMR.
They say EMS workers already working during a staffing shortage are having a tougher time passing patients off to understaffed emergency rooms.
An AMR spokesperson says in part quote, “There are just, frankly, no available stretchers, or there are no staff members to accept the patient. And the patient is being managed essentially on a stretcher outside the hospital, waiting to get in."
We also reached out to National Ambulance which did not return multiple calls.
Both private and public ambulance services are affected by the EMS staffing shortage.
“Right now, outside of a municipal service, it’s kind of a disaster. These private ambulance companies mainly rely on paramedics and EMTs that are coming from the fire department to work part-time or per diem,” former employee of private ambulance companies, Chicopee paramedic James Pijar said.
Pijar works as a paramedic for a municipal service now, but he used to work for private ambulance companies.
He said he left because of the staffing issues and the fact that many per diem workers don’t want certain shifts.
“You pretty much hope that you don’t have a medical emergency on a night weekend or holiday because odds are that ambulance company is going to be functioning at a bare-bones minimum staffing,” Pijar explained.
“We had guys who were on the job 20+ years. Now the longevity just really isn’t there,” Advanced EMT John David Hebert said.
Hebert is an EMT. He used to work for a private ambulance service. He too transitioned to a municipal one.
“The more feasible services are the ones that can regionalize,” Hebert said.
So we went and spoke to one of those services that did regionalize.
“We cover the towns of Deerfield, Sunderland, and Whately,” Chief of South Country Emergency Medical Services Zachary Smith said.
Smith said a few years ago the three towns decided to fund a public service rather than rely on their dwindling volunteers or a go with a private company.
“The community has said this is something we value that is worth spending money on,” Smith said.
The main source of revenue for a private ambulance company is billing patients and insurance companies.
It’s a process that Andrews, who works for a private ambulance company, says has grown increasingly difficult through the years.
“60-plus percent of our income comes from Medicare/Medicaid; the reimbursement rates have not kept up with that so, that’s kind of stagnated salaries,” Andrews said.
“When you start trying to get cute with the numbers usually the first place that takes a hit are the people that you’re relying on to be those care providers,” Smith added.