EMSA Struggles with Response Times

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JaNae Williams

The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City

(MCT)

Response times for Oklahoma’s largest ambulatory care provider have not met compliance standards in more than a year for the Oklahoma City area, largely due to staffing shortages.

Emergency Medical Services Authority’s Western Division has not met the 90% compliance standard for response times since before June 2020, according to data shared in Wednesday’s meeting of the EMSA Board of Trustees. The Western Division includes Oklahoma City, Edmond, Mustang, The Village and Nichols Hills.

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During that time, EMSA assumed control of staffing and operations from it’s former contractor, American Medical Response. For its highest priority calls, which mostly include life-threatening events, the division fell to its lowest rating of 63% in Dec. 2020, the first month EMSA held full control. While numbers improved slightly from January to May, they fell again in June 2021, having never fully rebounded.

The lag in response time is partly due to a shortage of medical workers according to EMSA CEO Jim Winham. The shortage stems from fewer people entering the field and the burn out seen across the healthcare industry as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have heard from our workforce … they are tired,” Winham said.

The Western Division has 31 open positions for full-time paramedics and nine openings for full-time EMTs. EMTs and paramedic positions can take longer to fill due to state licensure requirements, said Adam Paluka, deputy chief of public affairs for EMSA.

“We can’t just hire somebody off the street and train them,” he said. “They have to actually go to school and be credentialed before they can work for us.”

In 2020, the number of people who took licensing exams for all levels of EMS division education fell according to data on the Oklahoma State Department of Health website. Paluka said recruiting and retention are focuses for EMSA, but they do face difficulties.

“Everything that we do have control over, which is bonuses, outreach, accessibility, all of that stuff we’re doing,” Paluka said. “But we can’t build these people in a factory.”

Meanwhile, compliance in the Eastern Division, which services the Tulsa area, has remained within two points of the benchmark, often exceeding 90%. One explanation for the difference in numbers is the size of the divisions, Paluka said.

“Western Division is much larger than Eastern, almost twice as large geographically,” he said. “That disparity is reflected sometimes in response times because things in the east are much closer together.”

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