Why more ambulances won’t fix Chicago dispatch problems

If there are ways to increase the effectiveness of system operations, throwing more ambulances at the problem isn’t necessarily the fix.


The head of most EMS operations is the communication center. The responsibility is huge. It is the first point of contact for the community when reporting medical emergencies.

Communicators coordinate the system’s resources, trying to match the appropriate unit to the appropriate incident. Dispatchers use various forms of technology to help make those decisions: software, GPS, dispatch algorithms, among others.

The system has to be able to send the appropriate resources at the right time to avoid going to a zero-level condition. Sometimes that’s unavoidable, but regulating the system to minimize a zero-level condition can help reduce the possibility.

That’s why it doesn’t make sense that Chicago dispatchers basically throw calls out on the air. Reading the article about a city-issued memo to keep an ambulance shortage quiet made me think of the 1970s' TV show "Taxi." Maybe Chicago ambulances are yellow in color?

How does Chicago keep track of their resources? It seems a little strange that a dispatcher doesn’t know where the units are at any given time.

While Chicago is a big system, other similarly sized systems seem to be able to tell which ambulance should go where at any point in time. Is this a sign of a larger issue?

If there are ways to increase the effectiveness of system operations, throwing more ambulances at the problem isn’t necessarily the fix.

About the author

EMS1 Editorial Advisor Art Hsieh, MA, NREMT-P currently teaches at the Public Safety Training Center, Santa Rosa Junior College in the Emergency Care Program. Since 1982, Art has worked as a line medic and chief officer in the private, third service and fire-based EMS. He has directed both primary and EMS continuing education programs. Art is a textbook author, has presented at conferences nationwide, and continues to provide patient care at an EMS service in Northern California. Contact Art at Art.Hsieh@ems1.com.

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