Ambulance breakdowns on rise in Austin

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Associated Press

Posted on January 31, 2014 at 1:03 AM

Updated Friday, Jan 31 at 1:03 AM

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Ambulances responding to emergencies in Austin regularly encounter mechanical failures that prevent them from reaching patients or even departing an EMS station on a call, according to a newspaper report published Wednesday.

Such breakdowns interfere with an emergency response by the fleet of Austin-Travis County EMS ambulances at least once every three days, on average, according to a joint analysis by the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV (http://bit.ly/1bC4LTJ ).

Many EMS systems don't track their number of "critical failures" — the industry term for when a mechanical problem prevents an ambulance from reaching its destination — making a comparison difficult. But Austin's breakdown rate eclipses that of several similarly sized cities, including Charlotte, N.C., and the number of critical failures rose significantly in 2012 and 2013.

"There is nothing, nothing, more frustrating than being let down by the transportation part of what we do," said Tony Marquardt, president of the Austin-Travis County EMS Employee Association. "It's something that is beyond our control."

There are several reasons for the high number of critical failures, ranging from an unusually large number of mechanical problems with an ambulance model the city purchased several years ago to its lack of timely preventative maintenance of the ambulance fleet — a point highlighted in a city audit last fall.

EMS officials say that while they're concerned about the frequency of breakdowns, the failures don't jeopardize patient health. For the most serious, time-critical emergencies, such as a stroke or heart attack, fire department first responders also are dispatched and provide basic care before an ambulance arrives, they said.

And if one ambulance can't mobilize because of a breakdown, others are sent to the scene, adding only seconds or, at most, a couple of minutes to a response. EMS Assistant Director James Shamard said he's unaware of any patient whose condition suffered due to a mechanical delay.

Yet industry experts and local officials acknowledge that the persistent breakdowns pose an ongoing threat to patient safety.

"Whatever the number is, you try to improve it," Jay Fitch, a national EMS consultant, told the newspaper. "Part of the reason for measuring this in this way would be to look at what are the procedures, what is occurring, why it is occurring and what can be done to mitigate that."

In a three-year period from November 2010 through mid-December 2013, Austin-Travis County EMS recorded 338 critical failures in 4.3 million miles its ambulances traveled. The number of mechanical issues rose from 99 in 2012 to 119 in 2013.

As the city and county have continued growing, the number of calls peaked at 115,000 last year, compared with 87,000 in 2005. Of those, only about 8,000 responses were critical, life-or-death emergencies, and EMS officials didn't know how many critical failures happened on those high-priority calls. With that volume, experts said, a strong maintenance program is crucial.

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Information from: Austin American-Statesman, http://www.statesman.com

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