Pa. city to address long ambulance response times

Hazleton Councilman and volunteer firefighter Tony Columbo said that while he understands there is a staffing shortage, residents can’t afford to wait in an emergency


By Sam Galski
Standard-Speaker

HAZLETON, Pa. — When it comes to ambulance response times in Hazleton, some city officials are running short on patience.

Since at least September, city council Vice President Allison Barletta said she’s been hearing complaints about excessive waits that residents have had to endure for ambulance service.

On one occasion, representatives from a local tow company reported waiting between 30 and 40 minutes for an ambulance to respond to an automobile accident in Hazleton, she said. On another, a private resident said that it took an ambulance company about a half-hour to respond to their home.

At first, complaints were sporadic, but Barletta said they’ve been on the uptick over the past three months.

Fearing longer response times could jeopardize residents and first responders, Barletta asked council members and Mayor Jeff Cusat to set up a meeting to discuss the issue with Lehigh Valley Health Network. Lehigh Valley purchased a local ambulance company, American Patient Transport Systems, in July.

“This isn’t happening just once,” Barletta said in a Dec. 26 email to council and the mayor. “I am worried now because we are now jeopardizing our residents safety. I would like to see if we haven’t already set up a meeting ... what we need to do to solve this.”

Barletta isn’t alone.

Councilman Tony Colombo, a 39-year volunteer firefighter who worked for more than 25 years with a local paramedic unit and ambulance company in Hazleton, said that he too has heard similar complaints.

“I think our residents are suffering,” Colombo said. “I guess the demand is there and there’s not enough supply.”

Colombo understands that staffing shortages are taking a toll on ambulance companies. At the same time, he said, residents can’t afford to wait when they’re suffering from a medical emergency.

“I understand where (ambulance companies) are coming from,” Colombo said. “But, my main concern and our concern as a council is safety. If you’re having a heart attack, you can’t wait. Time matters.”

Talks

Ambulance response times were one of several issues discussed at a meeting that Cusat, city solicitors and Lehigh Valley representatives attended about two weeks ago.

“People have been inquiring about response time to my office and on social media,” Cusat said. “So, the city had asked the new owners of APTS, which is Lehigh Valley Hospital, to sit down and see if they were aware of this situation and to voice our concerns and suggestions for help in shortening those response times.”

The problem is not unique to Hazleton, Cusat said.

Staffing shortages and a lack of competing wages have affected ambulance units across the country, Cusat said.

Locally, response times vary depending on where an ambulance company responds from.

“If APTS (Lehigh Valley EMS) is on and they get a call, for example, to the valley, they have to go,” Cusat said. “That kind of leaves a void here. When we (get) a call, the ambulance has to come back from somewhere else. Because there’s a shortage all over the place, it kind of snowballs into a bigger problem.”

Cusat said “a lot of positives” came out of the meeting with Lehigh Valley officials and that he’s content after receiving assurances that the hospital will do what it can to minimize the wait for residents.

“They reassured us that they’ll work on their concerns and keep us in the loop as far as what’s going on with their staffing and response times,” he said.

Cusat said he’s noticed improvements since the hospital took over the service this summer.

“As long as I know that everyone’s working toward the same goal, then I’m OK,” the mayor said. “We’re on the right path. It’s just that we would like it to be a little faster.”

Lisa Marie Halecky, spokeswoman for Lehigh Valley Hospital-Hazleton, said Wednesday that Lehigh Valley purchased and placed into service an additional ambulance and two ground wheelchair vehicles. Hospital officials are “actively recruiting” for ambulance staff, she said.

A responder’s take

Dave Fatula, the general manager of APTS who has taken on similar responsibilities since Lehigh Valley has taken over the ambulance company, said that while he didn’t participate in the recent meeting, it’s his understanding that ambulance response times were only a small part of the discussion.

Ambulance service as a whole is struggling from recruiting — and maintaining — staff, according to Fatula.

Response times were an issue involving a carbon monoxide call in Hazleton recently, but Fatula said emergency responders waited for ambulances after requesting four basic life support (BLS) units. Crews from outside of the city were called while Lehigh Valley’s units remained available for an advanced life support (ALS) call, he said.

Smaller ambulance companies are also competing against larger outfits from outside the area that can afford to pay higher salaries, he said.

Several local outfits lost emergency medical technicians and paramedics to those outfits, he said.

“It’s a tough industry,” Fatula said. “It’s very competitive in all aspects.”

Response times

In Hazleton, Lehigh Valley EMS is first-due ALS and BLS responder. When those units aren’t available, Luzerne County 911 dispatches according to its county-wide EMS response plan — which dispatches “next closet available units by distance,” according to Andrew Zahorsky, data and technical support manager at the 911 communications center.

If Lehigh Valley EMS units are not available, for example, the county would then dispatch Med Stat Ambulance, which is also based in Hazleton, and move outward for other units, if necessary.

Since multiple factors impact a response, an average time is difficult to calculate, Zahorsky said.

Staffing affects the availability of ambulance units and might result in the county calling companies that must travel greater distances, he said.

Basic life support services that have been available for years have shuttered in smaller communities and if local companies aren’t available, the county might have to call ALS units from Nescopeck, Berwick, Shenandoah, Lehighton or Mountain Top — which must travel further when answering calls in the Hazleton Area, Zahorsky said.

A report prepared by Pennsylvania Department Health’s Bureau of Emergency Medical Services analyzed response times for emergency 911 calls over the first six months of 2018.

Those times are defined as the difference between an EMS unit’s arrival on scene and the time of dispatch.

EMS units took an average of 9 minutes, 33 seconds to respond to calls in Luzerne County, compared to 10 minutes, 55 seconds in Schuylkill County and 17 minutes, 36 seconds in Carbon County, according to the report.

State officials reported that while a majority of state-wide EMS calls have a response of 15 minutes or less, units from across the commonwealth had a median response time of 9 minutes.

Local views

Hazleton Fire Chief Donald Leshko said that while his department has at times waited for ambulances to arrive at accident scenes, there have also been occasions when EMS is first to the scene for other calls.

Leshko said the city is fortunate enough to have a fire department that is staffed by EMTs and paramedics.

“If our guys hear they are busy and hear calls are backing up, we’ll send guys out to incidents to offer assistance,” Leshko said. “We want to try and get the patient stabilized and offer that assistance until the ambulance gets there.”

EMS services were mentioned as a potential revenue source in Hazleton’s Act 47 financial recovery plan. Citing the three paramedics and 12 EMTs on the fire department’s roster, the city’s financial recovery coordinator suggested evaluating whether the city would benefit from insurance billing and direct billing for providing ambulance services.

City officials have not acted on the suggestion at this point.

Police Chief Jerry Speziale said that while ambulance services have been responsive to answering calls directly from his department, he couldn’t speak to calls that residents made to 911 for ambulance services.

Police would — and have — driven citizens to the hospital, but Speziale said those circumstances involve the most extreme situations. A patrolman who responded to an incident last November drove an unresponsive infant to the hospital and police would do the same in any urgent circumstance, Speziale said.

“It’s when it’s so urgent we don’t want to take the chance — life-or-death situations,” Speziale said.

Copyright 2019 Standard-Speaker

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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