Dallas ambulance response times lag behind national standard
The Dallas Fire-Rescue department added a full-time ambulance and will implement a long-planned new tiered EMS dispatch software to improve response times
By Hayat Norimine
The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS — Dallas' growing number of emergency medical responses have fallen far short of the national standard.
The National Fire Protection Association says fire departments should respond to 90% of life-threatening emergency calls within 5 minutes.
Dallas Fire-Rescue, which sees annual growth in emergency medical call volume, has responded to just 50.7% of EMS calls within 5 minutes this fiscal year, according to city statistics.
The department didn't come close to the standard last fiscal year either — only 53.6% of responses fell within 5 minutes. But now, the numbers are heading in the wrong direction.
Fire officials, who are sorting out their budget for the next fiscal year with city officials, blame a lack of resources to keep up with the increasing call volumes. In fiscal year 2018, which ended Sept. 30, 2018, Dallas Fire-Rescue responded to 259,332 emergency medical calls — up 23% from the total six years ago.
The city currently has 58 stations distributed throughout the city. Department spokesman Jason Evans said high demand from some areas ties up ambulances and prompts Dallas Fire-Rescue to send ambulances from stations farther away. That means slower responses, he said.
Evans said the department added a full-time ambulance in May and will implement a long-planned new tiered EMS dispatch software this month, which he believes will help improve response times. That system, used in some other cities, helps dispatchers prioritize calls based on a protocol of questions. For years, Dallas ambulances essentially treat calls about heart attacks and sprained ankles with the same urgency.
The full-time ambulance at a cost of $994,000 funds six new paramedic positions — two for each shift, Evans said. As part of the city's 2017 bond package, Dallas Fire-Rescue also plans to add another fire station at Jim Miller Road and Great Trinity Forest in 2021.
"DFR will continue monitoring its response times, and making the necessary changes, to move closer to meeting those standards while ensuring the highest level of service to the citizens of Dallas," Evans said in a statement.
Dallas Firefighters Association President Jim McDade said Fire Chief Dominique Artis' hands are tied to do much more. Nothing will improve response times until the city manager decides to spend more money on the department's needs, he said.
"Plain and simple, we need more ambulances," McDade said. "Our ambulances are running nonstop. Paramedics are being worked to the bone right now.
"Frankly we're just very exhausted."
Between early 2017 and July, turnover remained high; more than 200 uniform fire employees left Fire-Rescue through retirement, resignation or termination, according to public records. The department currently has about 1,950 uniform fire employees, including trainees.
McDade said the turnover started with the city's pension crisis, which also thinned the police department's ranks. Dallas Fire-Rescue has had an easier time staffing up than police in the past two years, McDade said. But the hundreds of newly hired and trained employees aren't enough to make up for the rising demand in service, he said.
McDade also worries the department will have to make cuts this year if the budget is tight. The department had a $294 million budget this fiscal year, and the city — which is staring down state-imposed revenue caps — will also have to commit more money to firefighter pay increases and pension contributions.
The city manager's office declined to comment until the proposed budget for next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, is released later this week.
"It's not about providing for the firefighters," McDade said. "It's about providing for the citizens of Dallas."
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