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Overcrowded ERs slowing EMS response times

Posted at 4:39 PM, Oct 28, 2021

TOWSON, Md (WMAR) — Overcrowded emergency rooms are causing issues for EMS personnel. The Baltimore County Fire Department has put in contingency plans but officials are worried it might get worse as flu season picks up.

“We see a perfect storm,” said Baltimore County EMS bureau chief Richard Schenning. “We are anticipating that it may be getting worse over the next several months.”

Hospitals are already experiencing severe overcrowding with more patients this time of year than usual and with less staff because of a nursing shortage.

It’s impacting EMS response times because it takes longer to transfer patients into the care of the hospitals.

“Where typically that may take 15-20 minutes, now we are upwards sometimes of 35-40 up to an hour in some cases,” said Schenning.

For every call, EMS personnel usually consult the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems.

Hospitals update the dashboard in real time based on how busy it is and EMS personnel use it to decide where to take their patient.

A yellow alert means they are particularly busy. A red alert means they have no more in-patient beds.

“It’s a request for us to not going into that facility,” said Schenning.

But because so many hospitals are constantly on colors, it’s not very helpful

“It’s really kind of breaking the system for EMS and it’s facing a pretty high risk of collapse,” said Baltimore ER nurse Lena Sutch.

This has caused EMS systems, like the Baltimore County Fire department, to adapt and bypass the system all together and use what they call locally a blue alert.

“We will go through our dispatch center and see how many units are at a hospital so we can select the most appropriate one that will provide us the quickest turnaround time,” said Sutch.

The quicker the turnaround, the quicker they can respond to the next call. But because there have been constant delays, they have put other contingency plans in place, sending crews outside their geographical area, or sending a fire truck first.

“You may see a non-ambulance in lieu of what you would have historically have seen. It may take them a little longer to come up,” said Schenning.

Schenning said they are working as hard as possible so the delays don’t impact the patients.

“For any perceived emergency, when you call 911 we are ready and able to response 24/7 as we always have. It just might look different,” said Schenning.

Schenning said one thing we can do is be patient with healthcare workers as they continue navigating these challenges.