Emergency Services Audit Finds Response Times Steady, Despite Rise in Demand

Oct 29, 2014

The City of Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Emergency Services (EMS) has seen increased call volume in recent years, and responders have kept pace. That’s according to an audit released Wednesday by Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb.

“Back in 2006/2007 we were looking at almost 116,000 calls, now we’re up to almost 122,000 calls in that two-year period [2012-2013], and despite that increase in call volume, we found that average response times pretty much held steady,” said Lamb.

In 2012, the average response time was 9 minutes 41 seconds; it was 9 minutes 53 seconds in 2013. There is no federal or state response time standard for ambulances, and Lamb said EMS are not usually the first on a scene — fire or police are usually the first responders. Lamb said, overall, the audit findings are positive, but added that there is always room for improvement.

“We’d love to see them have more resources so that they could bring that response time down,” said Lamb. “Particularly when you look at the unit utilization, we see that the unit out in the West End is really overtaxed, so we’d like to see some effort directed to dealing with that situation.”

Response times also vary slightly depending on what type of call is made. They are shorter for cardiac arrest or severe trauma than they are for something such as a stroke.

“What that says is the need, and the EMS chief has recognized this need, of increased training for the 911 workers and a better understanding of the process of prioritization and categorization of calls,” said Lamb.

One of the issues, also, is chronic user of EMS. To try and cut down on that population, Lamb pointed to a pilot program from UPMC and Highmark that is, so far, seeing results.

“They are actually visiting these individuals who we know are using the service, or were using it, to make sure they’re staying on their meds, checking in on them once in a while and taking them out of the mix,” he said, “so it’s saving money to the city, saving money to the other EMS services, but also saving money to emergency rooms.”

Lamb said the EMS chief agreed with most of the audit findings, but did disagree on at least one point – and that is that EMS driver take patients to the nearest hospital – even if it’s not in the city, rather than taking them to a city hospital.

Lamb also said that the EMS budget will be overdrawn by early November. He points to a union contract settlement that resulted in $1.3 million being paid out to workers. He said EMS personnel will still get paid, but the bureau will be over budget. He said he would discuss the issue with City Council and the mayor’s office.