Pressure mounts for Prince George's County EMS crews as hospital wait times rise

Pressure is mounting for local ambulance crews as they're forced to search for open hospital beds and, at times, wait hours just to drop off a patient.

Recently two different EMS crews with Prince George's County Fire and EMS had to wait over eight hours to drop off patients. Ambulance crews stay with their patients at the hospital until there's an available bed.

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"I think we're in the middle of a perfect storm and the storm is just getting more intense," said Dave Statter, a public safety advocate who has long monitored local emergency communications.

What he's hearing is troubling: frustrated EMS workers shopping around patients to different hospitals, sometimes having to pass by the closest emergency room to find an open bed elsewhere.

"Today I've been hearing one hospital tell an ambulance crew, you've got a long wait if you come here.' Another one just flat out said, please don't bring the patient here,'" Statter recounted.

It's forcing fire departments across the region to re-evaluate their typical procedures. Terrell Buckson, Prince George's Co. Assistant Fire Chief of EMS, said the department put new measures in place just days ago.

"Everybody's feeling the same pain, increased drop times and all of the hospitals being on alert," said Buckson.

On average in the county, crews are waiting an hour and 40 minutes to drop patients at the hospital, but Buckson said wait times can balloon to four, five or even eight hours. He said prior to the pandemic, average drop times were less than 30 minutes.

"Which is why we decided to take this multifaceted approach to try to decrease that drop time," Buckson said.

He said now, one paramedic may wait with multiple patients to relieve other crews. Crews have been given more flexibility when it comes to the hospitals they can go to, and there's a new level of communication between EMS and local hospitals, almost a negotiation.

"We bring multiple facilities online in some cases to let them decide which facility could best handle the patient," said Buckson.

He said the changes are helping as crews navigate a difficult new reality.

Buckson said ambulance response times are still in line with department standards, so those having a medical emergency can still rely on calling 911. The hospital someone is brought to could just be in another county or even in northern Virginia.

"The crews are frustrated," said Statter. "The hospitals are frustrated and the thing that worries me is we're not over this and it's still growing. A lot of people are predicting it's going to get worse."

Statter said the public should be aware of the challenges emergency crews have to overcome.

"What always amazes me is how the fire departments adapt, they're can-do, they want to make it work," he said.