Mecklenburg EMS Revamps How It Responds to 911 Calls

Techs work 24/7 to make sure ambulances are fully stocked and ready to help save lives in Mecklenburg County.
Photo/Mecklenburg EMS

Jonathan Limehouse

The Charlotte Observer

(MCT)

To help manage resources during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and a nationwide shortage of health care providers, Mecklenburg EMS is changing how it responds to 911 calls.

Now, a caller to 911 who does not require serious medical attention will get an immediate “lights and sirens” response from the Charlotte Fire Department and its EMTs, but not Medic.

“Low-acuity,” or low-risk, patients also will receive a “no lights and sirens” response from a Medic ambulance, with a target arrival time of 30 minutes or less, John Studnek, Medic deputy director, said during a news conference Thursday.

“We’ll do that 90% of the time, (that’s) our goal,” he said.

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The change went into effect Thursday and will affect around 20,000 to 25,000 of the agency’s roughly 150,000 responses each year, Studnek said. This is about 60 responses per day, he said.

“Only 1 to 1.5% of patients required … potentially life saving interventions,” Studnek said, citing a Medic review. “More than 25% required no transport at all.”

Medic ambulances that respond to low-risk 911 calls without lights and sirens will be safer for its teams and drivers on the road, Studnek said.

“Responding with lights and sirens is one of the most risky things our providers do,” he said.

Extending low-risk response times also will allow Medic dispatchers to ensure resources remain in place to rapidly respond to more high-risk patients.

Medic employees has had mandatory overtime in place in October, and Studnek said that will continue through November.

The agency is short 38 full-time, patient-facing employees, he said. As of June 30, Medic had 576 employees.

“It’s protocols like this change in response configuration that’s going to help us bridge the gap of the long term problem of staffing so we can start to idle down some of that mandatory overtime,” he said.

Call volume has become difficult to predict lately, Studnek said, but Medic needs to maintain a readiness to respond to higher transport volumes even though the agency is seeing lower-volume days.

“It’s just not stable right now,” he said.

Take a Lyft to the hospital?

Another resource-saving strategy Medic implemented during the pandemic is the use of ride-sharing services to transport low-risk patients to hospitals. Medic partnered with Circulation, a company that works with Lyft to provide ride-sharing services to the medical community.

Ride-sharing is “absolutely cheaper” when compared to the cost of riding in an ambulance, which could be over $1,000, Studnek said.

“Our experience with Lyft right now is somewhere around $18,” he said.

Low-risk patients who decide to use the service don’t need to have the Lyft app, and can communicate with the driver through text messaging, Studnek said.

Advice line nurses also have been able to discuss options for low-risk patients who may not need an ambulance, Studnek said.

‘Ambulance strike team’ leaving

At the beginning of October, Medic received an “ambulance strike team” consisting of five new vehicles and 10 extra personnel to help during the pandemic.

North Carolina officials submitted a request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Sept. 10 for 40 advanced life support and 10 basic life support ambulances, according to the state Department of Public Safety. The state received just 25 advanced life support ambulances, each with a two-person crew of EMS providers, but no basic life support vehicles, the Observer previously reported.

Studnek said he doesn’t “have any confidence” that Medic will receive more federal assets after the contract expires on Oct. 28. The team mostly transported non-emergency patients out of the hospital to free bed capacity, he said.

“They’ve been a great benefit,” Studnek said. “They’ve been transporting about 24 patients a day.”

Vaccine deadline approaching

Medic employees have until Friday to get vaccinated, or show proof of religious or medical exemption. Studnek said Medic employees have options: Get vaccinated, show the correct documentation for exemption or resign.

As of Thursday, 92% of Medic employees have received at least one shot and 5.5% have submitted paperwork for an exemption, Studnek said. Only about 10 employees have yet to be vaccinated or submit their exemption paperwork, he said.

©2021 The Charlotte Observer. Visit charlotteobserver.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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