Wait times for ambulances in New York City are the longest since the start of COVID-19

Gothamist has found that ambulance response times in New York City are getting longer — reaching their highest level since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic four years ago.

During the week of Memorial Day, it took emergency medical services an average of 12.81 minutes to respond to life-threatening medical emergencies and 28.31 minutes to arrive for non-life-threatening situations, according to the latest data available from the city. That's the longest time in both cases since mid-March 2020, when response times were 16.91 and 46.40 minutes, respectively. A 2017 study showed that nationally, the average EMS response time in urban areas is seven minutes.

Memorial Day week was not unusual: The lengthy responses to medical emergencies reflect annual trends seen in the city. The average time for an ambulance to arrive at a scene rose by 69 seconds to nearly 11 minutes in the fiscal year that ended last June, compared with 11 minutes the previous two years ago, according to the mayor's management report.

City data shows that in every month this year in New York, the time between ambulance dispatch and arrival has increased compared to the same months last year.

The delays are affecting New Yorkers, too. When Aisha Culmer found her neighbor shot in Hamilton Heights last month, she said a man screamed at police officers on scene: “Why is the ambulance taking so long to come? It’s already been six or seven minutes, where are they?”

A few more minutes passed. Neighbors were putting the injured woman in a car to take her to the hospital when someone announced that the ambulance had finally arrived, Culmer said. That was about 10 minutes after 911 was called.

“Everybody started running with him to the ambulance,” Culmer said. “All we saw was blood, we didn't know where exactly he was hit, if he was bleeding internally. Everybody was just panicking because you see your neighbor lying on the ground and you're like, 'What's going on?'”

Emergency medical technicians say the longer it takes them to arrive, the greater the chance of death. A 2020 analysis of ambulance response times in Saudi Arabia found that if the ambulance response time was more than eight minutes, the chance of death following cardiac arrest doubled.

New York City EMS operations chief Michael Fields told Gothamist that several factors have contributed to the increase in response times:

  • Traffic: Ambulances have been stuck in traffic because of record numbers of cars on the road. Fields said the proliferation of bike lanes in recent years means streets have become narrower, making it harder for first-responders to pass vehicles. Fields said new speed limits are also a problem. “When you slow down the city, you slow down emergency response,” he said.
  • Record call volume: There were a record 1.6 million calls for EMS services last year, and 1.7 million are expected this year.
  • Emergency room delays: The number of available emergency rooms where ambulances can bring patients has decreased, according to Fields.
  • Similarly, emergency department staffing has declined, forcing EMTs and paramedics to spend more time at the hospital before handing over patients to hospital staff.

Unions and EMS members explained in interviews why ambulance response times have increased. They said low pay for those driving ambulances and providing life-saving aid has led to staffing shortages, turnover in the ranks and relatively little experienced staff.

EMT salaries start at $39,386 annually. That's less than an app delivery worker, who earns the city's new minimum wage of $19.56, plus tips, while working 40 hours a week.

“If you call 911 and complain that you have stomach pains or trouble breathing, it could be up to four to five hours before an ambulance arrives,” said Oren Barzilay, president of the union representing EMTs and paramedics. “For a heart attack or stroke, it could take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes. These numbers are unacceptable.”

“People are simply dying because of this,” he said. “Response times have increased, call volumes have increased and our resources have remained stagnant.”

Fields denied the claim, saying, “We don't have any staffing issues here.”

“You give me more ambulances, you give me more people, we can certainly reduce response items,” he said. “But we have to be fiscally responsible. The mayor is responsible for the city's entire budget.”

Fields shared some ideas for improving ambulance response times. He said the FDNY, which oversees EMS, is planning public service announcements to explain to New Yorkers when they should and should not call 911. “There are certainly other options besides calling 911, such as going to a local urgent care center,” Fields said.

According to Fields, about a third of ambulances dispatched through 911 are operated by local hospitals, not the FDNY. He said they are working to place EMS supervisors inside hospitals to help get ambulance crews back on the streets. He said they also plan to use telehealth to communicate with doctors at the scene instead of having EMTs waste time transporting patients to the hospital.

Meanwhile, the FDNY is starting to use artificial intelligence technology to improve its emergency response times. Earlier this year, the department partnered with NYU's Tandon School of Engineering to analyze emergency vehicle travel times and test potential solutions, such as modifying infrastructure and finding alternate routes.

But those solutions have not been implemented yet.

“It's definitely getting worse,” said George Contreras, who has been a paramedic for 30 years and teaches emergency management response at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “I work the streets, I can tell you that.”

He said hiring more staff would reduce wait times because some EMS workers currently travel to multiple boroughs in one shift to meet the need. And higher pay would ensure workers stay on the job rather than moving to firefighting for more money, as some do, Contreras said.

“The reality is the city has never provided 100% of the resources [for EMS],” He said.

Culmer, a Hamilton Heights resident whose neighbor was shot, said she wants the city to provide more resources to EMS.

“If there aren't people doing work that can reach everybody, can we really blame them?” he said. “They're not ubiquitous where they can be everywhere.”

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