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Akron EMS employees working days-long shifts in first week without private ambulance service

photo of an ambulance

It’s been two days since the city of Akron parted ways with the company that provided private ambulance service for the past 50 years. Akron’s fire chief says there haven’t been many noticeable issues for patients, but employees are working much longer hours to handle calls.

Since 1978, American Medical Response, or AMR, assisted the Akron Fire Department with ambulance service, which freed up the city’s EMS crews to get back out on other calls. They provided the service at no cost to Akron and made money by billing the insurance of the transported patients.

Earlier this year, AMR officials told the department they could no longer agree to the no-cost service and asked for an $11 million contract over 5 years – which the city declined.

“We couldn’t ask the citizens of Akron to pay for a private ambulance service for something that we, Akron Fire, could really do, given time,” said Akron Fire Chief Joseph Natko.

Instead, fire officials asked for resources to hire additional staff members, which Akron City Council approved in the city’s 2023 budget earlier this year, he said.

Since the AMR contract ended Monday, it’s been a smooth transition, Natko said.

“There wasn’t any big, massive adjustment for us, other than the changing of how we operate,” Natko said. “Instead of turning over care to AMR, we’ve just started making our own trips to the hospital.”

However, the workload for Akron’s EMS employees has already increased.

“We’ve more than doubled the amount of time that we’re out in the field and transporting patients,” Natko said.

Of the 50,000 calls for emergency service last year, about half needed to be transported to the hospital, and AMR handled more than half – 13,000 – of these hospital transports, Natko said.

Without AMR’s assistance, there could be longer response times for less serious calls, he said.

Employees are offsetting the burden by picking up overtime, sometimes working 36 or 48 hours straight, he added.

“It’s not a good way to run an organization. It’s unhealthy for our employees. They get physically tired, they get emotionally tired, they get psychologically tired, and we don’t like to do that to them. But we’re doing it right now,” he said.

Most employees have been happy to step up and take overtime, he added. The department plans to add more than 25 employees in September once their training is done, Natko said.

They’re also planning to add more ambulances to the fleet, but it can take two years for the medical units to arrive after they are ordered, he said.

Right now, the biggest concern is that EMS workers might have to wait for a long time at the hospital with patients before hospital staff can take over care. This prevents EMS employees from assisting with new calls.

However, so far, wait times have been less than an hour, Natko said.

If the department eventually becomes overwhelmed, they can call for mutual aid from nearby departments. The department is also considering transporting patients to smaller, less busy hospitals outside the city limits, he said.

“We’ve also just started something we’ve never had to do before, which is stacking calls,” Natko said. “So, if we get to the point where we run out of med units … and the calls are not acute … we will inform the patient, it will be upwards of 15 minutes before we can get to you.”

EMS workers will always respond as soon as possible to acute emergency calls, such as heart attacks and cardiac arrest, and staff at the city’s hospitals can always take in these patients immediately, Natko added.

For less-severe or non-emergency conditions, Natko encourages residents to consider getting a ride from a friend or loved one.

“If it is serious, do not hesitate to call us. Still call us for every serious call. I can’t stress that enough. If it is a less than serious call, we may have to have you wait until there is an apparatus available,” Natko said.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.