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2 Investigators, BGA: Does Chicago Have An Ambulance Shortage?

(CBS) --   If you have a life-threatening condition will the city get an ambulance to you in time?

CBS 2's Pam Zekman and the Better Government Association investigated and found they may not. That's why paramedics say the city needs more paramedics and ambulances.

Take the case of Lynn Ramos. She was crossing Washington Street in the Loop last month when she was struck by a 2-ton postal truck.

Fire engines with a paramedic on board arrived in about four minutes to extricate her from under a wheel of the truck. In recorded calls, one of them can be heard asking a city dispatcher why an ambulance hasn't shown up yet.

Ambulances housed closer to the downtown were not available. The vehicle that was available was five miles away and took 16 minutes to get there -- 10 minutes longer than state guidelines suggest.

The injured Ramos was suffering from a punctured lung; one fractured leg and the other broken in two places; a fractured pelvis and ribs.

As she waited for the ambulance, Ramos says, "I was trying to breathe and pray, and keep positive hopes that they would get there soon enough to get me to the hospital."

The delay never should have happened, says Paramedic Field Chief Patrick Fitzmaurice.

"We don't have enough ambulances," he says.

The city says it meets state standards by getting a fire engine with a paramedic and advanced life support equipment to the scene within six minutes to stabilize a patient until an ambulance arrives.

"It may take 10 to 15 minutes for an ambulance to show up after that," said another paramedic, who asked CBS 2 to conceal his identity. "And, depending on what's wrong with the person, those minutes are critical."

He's one of more than a half dozen paramedics who tells CBS 2 that's not good enough for people suffering from life-threatening conditions.

"In a trauma patient, stroke patient and in a cardiac patient, they need to be transported," Fitzmaurice says.

A stroke patient, for example, needs to be taken to a stroke center where their condition can be assessed and drugs given to eliminate the deficits they may suffer, he says.

A gunshot victim, accident victims with internal injuries "need a surgeon to repair what their problem is," says the other paramedic. "Time is of the essence."

An audit by the city's inspector general highlights the problem. It found that the city's medical response times did not meet the standards recommended by the National Fire Protection Association.

The NFPA says advanced life support equipment should get to a medical emergency within five minutes from the time it is dispatched 90 percent of the time. The inspector general found the city only met that standard 58 percent of the time.

"Taxpayer money for critical services are at the core of what we pay our taxes to do," Inspector General Joseph Ferguson said. "And to the extent that our office looked at it, it appears that it is being done at a much lower level than what the fire department was claiming."

Ferguson says the fire department first told his office they use the NFPA standards but then said they did not. And the report criticized the methods the fire department used to calculate its performance, saying, "No one has any idea truly how well it is performing a core mission."

After famous chef Charlie Trotter apparently suffered a stroke last November, a 9-1-1 dispatcher described his condition to responding firemen as "unconscious, not breathing."

Advanced Life Support fire engines with paramedics arrived within four minutes to help

But an ambulance took more than 14 minutes to arrive from the time the call for help was placed.

BGA Logo
Better Government Association logo. (Credit: BGA)

Trotter later died after attempts to revive him on scene and at the hospital failed.

"They probably couldn't have saved Charlie Trotter," Andy Shaw of the Better Government Association says. "But other peoples' lives will be imperiled if they don't get the right ambulances and the right trained personnel to the scene quickly enough."

And that's a daily struggle for dispatchers, paramedics like Fitzmaurice say.

"There are times they literally just get on the radio and say, 'I have no ambulances. ... Can anybody go?'"

In a written statement, Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago disagrees there is an ambulance shortage.

"The Fire department takes its calls for medical assistance very seriously and does not have a shortage of ambulances," he said.

Santiago also said the department plans to hire more paramedics this year, "after a temporary delay due to our updating testing requirements."

"We are fully staffed every day with a mix of paramedics working straight time and overtime, the majority of which is voluntary. This allows us to respond quickly to start care and transport patients," he says.

In response to questions, a spokesman said the department would hire enough paramedics to reduce the $7 million it had to pay in overtime last year.

And the department is already tracking the response times of ALS ambulances to see how they can be utilized more efficiently and whether they need to move the headquarters for some of them to meet increased demands.

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