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EMS Response Times Slide 4th Straight Year

PITTSBURGH -- Response times by Pittsburgh paramedics are at a five-year high and lag behind a national organization's suggested standard.

Pittsburgh EMS units on average took 12 minutes to respond to emergencies last year, up from 10 minutes, 51 seconds in 2003, according to the state Health Department.

Paramedics should respond in eight minutes or fewer, said Carl Peterson, a spokesman for the National Fire Protection Association. The nonprofit recommends standards for fire and EMS departments across the country, though cities are not required to adopt those standards, he said.

"In essence, we're covering the same amount of calls with less people and equipment," said Pittsburgh EMS Chief Robert J. McCaughan, who blamed increasing response times on staffing cuts the city made in 2003. Then-Mayor Tom Murphy eliminated four ambulances and about 30 paramedics, leaving Pittsburgh with about 160 paramedics and 13 vehicles, he said.

"It's a challenge, to say the least," McCaughan said.

City Controller Michael Lamb plans today to release an audit of the city's EmergencyMedical Services.

Pittsburgh's 12-minute average is almost four minutes longer than EMS units in Cleveland and more than three minutes longer than Philadephia's units, according to information provided by officials in those cities.

Pittsburgh EMS responded to about 56,000 calls last year. Cleveland EMS responded to about 90,000 calls, and Philadelphia EMS about 210,000 calls, during that period, officials said.

The paramedics' union chief said slower response times are a symptom of today's health care industry.

"People are waiting in emergency rooms now, and you never had that before," said Tony Weinmann, president of the Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Professional Paramedics. "It's all one big circle. When one is affected, everything is affected."

The clock for measuring response times starts ticking as soon as 911 operators dispatch an ambulance and stops when it arrives on-scene.

Faster responses obviously are better, said Tom McElree, executive director of the EmergencyMedical Services Institute, a nonprofit corporation in Wilkinsburg that provides technical and financial assistance to EMS services throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.

"But it's a little complicated," McElree said. "Is it important? Sure. Is it something we have to consider and think about? Without question. But there are a whole lot of variables."

When 911 dispatchers receive emergency calls, they ask questions to determine the level of severity. The most life-threatening cases are designated "priority-zero," and less severe cases are labeled on a gradual scale from "priority-one" through "priority-four."

The statistics from the state Health Department include calls regardless of priority, said Joe Schmider, director of the state's Bureau of EmergencyMedical Services. The state does not keep a breakdown of calls by priority, he said.

Pittsburgh paramedics respond to the most critical cases -- priority-zero calls -- in an average of 8 minutes, 30 seconds, McCaughan said. That has held steady during the past five years, he said.

"We get to (lower-priority calls) when we get to them, so often times we're going to have extended response times. On lesser emergencies, we encourage our drivers to take it easy, not to rush. We want to get the ambulance there as quickly as possible, but we also want them to arrive on the scene safely. It does no good whatsoever if you get into a crash on the way to a response call."

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