HEMSI ambulances taking longer to respond to emergencies

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – News 19 previously reported on staffing shortages at HEMSI and talked to a paramedic about some of the struggles they are facing on the job.

This is an issue that is prevalent across the country, ambulance services cannot find enough qualified EMT and paramedics to staff their ambulances.

HEMSI CEO Jon Howell said the lack of emergency personnel workers means they don’t have enough ambulances to get on scenes as soon as he would like them to.

“The impact is simply this, we have ambulances and a deployment plan for ambulances that is based on our historical call volume patterns,” said Howell. ” Right now, on some days we’re greatly exceeding that and that means we don’t have enough ambulances.”

This means that other emergency responders, often fire departments, are the first ones to make contact with a patient. Huntsville Fire and Rescue covers the City of Huntsville. Madison Fire and Rescue covers the City of Madison, and county volunteer fire departments are responsible for dedicated areas.

“The first responders that can achieve the most meaningful response times are often fire services. First responders, our fire departments in Huntsville and Madison and all of our county volunteer fire departments all serve as medical first responders on medical calls,” said Howell. “We depend upon them to get there and achieve the critical response times that’s needed for critical calls.”

News 19 reached out to those departments to understand how HEMSI’s longer response times are impacting their jobs. Madison Fire and Rescue declined to comment.

Mike Jaco, a Fire Marshall for Huntsville Fire and Rescue, said HEMSI’s response times don’t change the way Huntsville Fire and Rescue treat patients on scene.

“There’s obviously times where there is going to be some delay there but our goal has always been to get there as fast as possible to provide initial care, supportive care, before the ambulance crew can arrive,” said Jaco, who emphasized that the quicker a patient in need gets taken to the hospital, the better.

Fire departments are not equipped to transport patients to the hospital. That’s HEMSI’s job. HEMSI is also responsible for providing the advanced pre-hospital care when needed.

News 19 requested additional data from HEMSI to better understand why it’s taking ambulances longer to arrive on scenes of emergency situations.

Howell provided News 19 with the following data for the three areas it covers; Huntsville, Madison, and Madison County.

According to the data, HEMSI has a goal time for each of those areas:
Huntsville – 9 minutes 59 seconds
Madison – 9 minutes 59 seconds
Madison County -19 minutes 59 seconds

90th Percentile TimesGoal TimeJan 2020May 2020Jan 2021May 2021
Huntsville9:5910:2910:1713:1115:07
Madison9:5910:179:2712:5619:11
Madison County19:5919:2119:2523:1124:16
HEMSI RESPONSE TIME DATA

In May of 2020 HEMSI just missed the mark on their goal time in Huntsville by 30 seconds. This year, just one year later, they took almost 5 minutes longer.

The one year difference in average response time in the City of Madison was most significant. From May 2020 to May 2021 it took around 10 minutes longer for a HEMSI ambulance to arrive at the scene of a medical emergency.


“I understand why they (people) want us there but unfortunately the economic reality we can’t just staff and field enough ambulances to achieve that, for all the medical calls that we have to respond to,” said Howell.

On May 5, 2020 HEMSI responded to 261 calls and made 210 transfers.

We spoke to a HEMSI paramedic and agreed to protect their identity. They said employees are responding to so many calls that they can’t keep up.

The paramedic tell us that on a good day HEMSI will have around 20 units covering Madison, Huntsville, and Madison county. On a bad day, the number of units running could be as low as 5 for the entire county.

“If we’re fully staffed and we’re having a great day and we have enough ambulances available, you’re looking at less than 10 minutes because we do have units in the county that cover areas in the county,” the paramedic said. “A bad day, a call could hold, I’ve seen them hold anywhere between 10 and 45 minutes before they’re dispatched.”

When there aren’t enough ambulances and there are too many 911 calls it creates a backup. During these situations 911 dispatchers will let other emergency responders know that HEMSI has a ‘high call volume’. This means calls are forced to ‘hold’ until there is a HEMSI unit available to respond.

News 19 requested HEMSI data on responses, transports, and held calls from the same three dates in May for the last three consecutive years;

DateResponsesTransportsHeld Calls
5/9/20191571103
5/20/20192201760
5/21/20191911400
5/19/20201831360
5/20/20201661300
5/21/20201801330
5/19/20212141618
5/20/202126121023
5/21/20212471765

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