‘Crisis level’: Fla. fire chief asks public to limit 911 use amid flood of COVID-19 calls

High call volumes and medical transports in Seminole County due to the recent increase in COVID-19 cases has put ambulance availability “below acceptable levels” in recent months

Grace Toohey
Orlando Sentinel

SANFORD, Fla. — High call volumes and medical transports in Seminole County due to the recent increase in COVID-19 cases has put ambulance availability “below acceptable levels” in recent months, pushing the county fire chief to ask residents to limit 9-1-1 calls to emergencies only.

“The pandemic is having a pretty drastic effect on, not only the hospitals, … but it’s having a severe effect on the [Emergency Medical Services] system,” Seminole Fire Department Chief Otto Drozd III said Monday. “At certain times of the day we are at that crisis level.”

Drozd asked the public to avoid calling 9-1-1 for non-emergencies, especially for minor symptoms of COVID-19, in order to free up ambulances and avoid hindering the county’s emergency response.

“What we’ve seen since March is the greatest number of transports in the history of the Seminole County Fire Department,” Drozd said. “... How can we keep those units available to the greatest extent?”

Drozd stressed that residents should not hesitate to call 9-1-1 during true emergencies.

“We don’t want people to stop calling to report a fire, car accident or serious issues,” Drozd said. “... We exist to provide in our community’s time of greatest need. But for those less serious medical ailments, if they could access the medical system other than through the emergency response, it would be a great help.”

In July, SCFD transported more than 3,000 people in ambulances to area hospitals, the highest count in recent history, according to data from the agency. Since March, more than 2,800 people have been transported every month, which had only happened five times between 2014 and the start of the pandemic.

Brevard County officials last week gave residents a similar plea regarding 9-1-1 calls, hoping to help free up space in already inundated hospitals, as the region and state struggle to respond to the recent coronavirus surge attributed to the more-contagious delta variant.

While officials in Orange County and Orlando said ambulance transports have also been up in recent weeks, they said the situation has not yet become an unsustainable strain on resources.

Drozd, however, said his agency has seen ambulance availability dropping to as low as 30% in recent weeks — well below a typical busy day’s availability of 60% or 70% — which means it could start taking longer for rescuers to arrive at emergencies.

“When we have such low availability we’re having to send units from further away,” Drozd said. “… The concern is that cardiac arrest, that traumatic call that comes in, we’re not going to be able to get [there quick enough] that [it’s] going to make a difference.”

Drozd wasn’t able to provide agency response time data Monday but said it’s an issue he’s worried about.

“We move units into the gaps constantly… but what we’re finding with so few units available our response times are going to be impacted,” Drozd said.

Under current conditions, he said ambulances are not only making more transports, but many are stuck waiting at crowded hospitals to get patients into a bed, sometimes for as long as 45 minutes or an hour, which further depletes the agency’s ability to respond to emergencies.

“What we’re seeing is a greater level of anxiety, perhaps, in the greater community,” Drozd said. “If you’re calling 9-1-1 and you have COVID symptoms, only call if you have difficulty breathing, persistent pressure on your chest or some of those more serious signs.”

He urged people with less serious symptoms to access care from their personal physician or urgent care centers. Drozd also reiterated that people in ambulances will not necessarily get into a hospital faster.

Drozd said his agency is finding ways to free up personnel, like limiting training and other agency activities, so they can continue to respond to the county’s needs.

In unincorporated Orange County, ambulance transports have also been up in recent weeks, but Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Scott Egan said they have the capacity to increase services even more, if necessary.

“It’s sustainable in the short term, but it’s a sprint right now,” Egan said. “We do have those plans to ramp up if necessary.”

Both counties’ fire agencies compared the demand for services to what they experience after a hurricane, but this heightened call volume has lasted much longer.

“This is definitely taking a toll on personnel,” Egan said. “Not just what’s happening while you’re at work, but it could be… on or off the job.”

He said OCFR as of Monday had 42 employees out with COVID-19 or exposure to the virus, which adds to the stress of the long-term emergency response. Egan said he didn’t have the number of OCFR staff who had been vaccinated.

Drozd said about 44% of his employees have been vaccinated, based on self reporting, but he is hopeful an incentive program will increase that. He said about 30 of Seminole’s fire rescue staff are out with COVID-19 or exposure, which has meant others have had to step up, sometimes for mandatory overtime.

“Once you’re at this high level of readiness for an extended period of time, it becomes pretty burdensome,” Drozd said.


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