For years, residents of rural Orange County have had to wait too long for ambulances in emergencies, sometimes as long as 45 minutes.
But a new initiative is looking to reduce ambulance response times countywide — which, in crisis situations, could be the difference between life and death.
On Nov. 20, the Orange County Board of County Commissioners approved approximately $5 million of improvement expenditures. Along with ongoing reforms to the system, this money could increase the speed at which ambulances reach patients.
“Right now, the average response time is 8 minutes and 23 seconds,” said Scott Lodge, Orange County Emergency Services quality assurance officer. “It has been going down steadily for the last four months.”
A March 2010 report cited Orange County Emergency Services’ average response time to be 17 minutes.
“Sometimes run times are as long as 30 or 45 minutes,” said Commissioner Earl McKee, who chairs the workgroup to reduce EMS response times.
“When you have a broken finger, it’s not a big deal, but anything over 12 minutes is a serious matter when it comes to heart attacks or strokes.”
Lodge said Emergency Services has been working to improve times since February, when the workgroup was established.
“In May, we put GPS devices in all five of our ambulances, so we’re always dispatching the closest unit,” he said. “And sometime in July, we switched from 24-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts for paramedics, so no one is allowed to sleep.”
The county has also purchased a new ambulance, hired more staff and restationed ambulances — including putting one on UNC’s campus.
The plan the Board of Commissioners passed on Nov. 20 will build upon these reforms in an effort to further reduce response times.
McKee, who was a volunteer fireman for more than 20 years, said he has a longstanding interest in improving emergency services in Orange County.
Reforms his workgroup have implemented include making more hires and using new software to improve 911 communications.
But the commissioners did not approve recommendations to build new ambulance substations — a large portion of the plan.
McKee said they decided to table this proposal, which would cost approximately $7 million, and see instead whether ambulances could be stationed at fire departments around the county.
“If we collaborate with the towns to co-locate ambulances and fire departments, we would save millions of dollars,” he said.
McKee said the more rural areas of the county have traditionally had the longest response times, and the southwest quadrant that includes the Bingham township currently has the longest average time — 11 minutes and 1 second.
But he said there are still times of the day when the entire county is underserved.
Capt. Kim Woodward, operations manager for Orange County Emergency Services and a former Orange County paramedic, said she has received surprisingly few complaints about lags in response times — only three or four in the past five years.
“It’s probably because in most cases, more pressing circumstances outweigh a patient’s need to call and complain,” Woodward said. “It’s a sad state of affairs because improvements often come from complaints.”
She said there are many reasons why Orange County has been slow at emergency responses.
“If you look at the history of the county, the system didn’t grow with call volume,” Woodward said.
Between 2000 and 2010, calls for emergency services increased by 68 percent, though Emergency Services gained only one new 24-hour ambulance.
And Orange County has fewer major roads than neighboring counties such as Wake and Durham, making efficient travel more difficult.
“As a paramedic I remember sometimes feeling kind of helpless,” Woodward said. “It’s not often easy to get to every call that we run in a timely manner.”
McKee said he thinks it will be impossible to reduce times to the county’s goal of between 8 and 12 minutes across the county due to financial constraints.
“But I think over time, if our reforms continue to be effective, we will be able to eliminate as many of the long wait times as possible,” he said.
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