CHICAGO (CBS) — For years, the CBS 2 Investigators have exposed the city’s ambulance shortage – in a few cases, someone died waiting.
Over and over again, we have been told more ambulances will be added to the Fire Department fleet, but it’s not happening.
And on Tuesday night, a whistleblower exposed to CBS 2 Political Investigator Dana Kozlov that the critical shortage has been made worse with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our ambulances are out there,” said Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 spokesman Pat Quane. “They’re running nonstop, 24/7.”
Eighty ambulances serve Chicago every day. The paramedics often go from one violent crime scene to another.
“They’re doing trauma care – that’s battlefield care,” said Chicago Fire Department Paramedic Field Chief Pat Fitzmaurice. “I have nothing but respect for them.”
Fitzmaurice knows that firsthand. He has had five decades on the job and is now on the brink of retirement.
But he said one thing hasn’t changed – the department still does not have enough ambulances.
“I’ve been fighting them for 45 years. I’m not about to give up now,” Fitzmaurice said. “I’m punching till the end. I’m punching till the last bell.”
Fitzmaurice sounded the alarm on this issue for years to former CBS 2 Investigator Pam Zekman. Those investigations found chronic concerns with ambulance response times, which Fitzmaurice said is a result of the ambulance shortage.
One analysis of 700,000 medical 911 calls found in 19 percent of them, it took an ambulance more than seven minutes to get to the scene. Sometimes, the results were tragic.
Tina Williams bled to death on the steps of her home after family made repeated 911 calls. It took eight minutes for an ambulance to arrive.
Illinois Department of Public Health records show the Chicago Fire Department has committed to a response time goal of six minutes.
“I blame the city, because if we would have had the proper help, she would have made it,” Arieal Curuth, Williams’ granddaughter, told Zekman.
Fitzmaurice said it is still a problem.
“Every day I work, there are response times in excess of 15 minutes – 15 minutes, 18 minutes, 13 minutes, 19 minutes,” he said. “It’s not acceptable.”
His concerns are shared by the firefighters’ union.
“Being on an (advanced life support) company and having to wait for an ambulance, we do experience some times where we are waiting to extensive times for ambulances,” Quane said.
Through a public records request, we obtained event query reports of 911 medical calls that backs that up. We found several examples of ambulance response times – from the time the call was made to on-scene arrival – of more than 10 minutes since August.
On Sept. 18, there was a call to JR’s Plaza Hotel in East Garfield Park. Th response time was 14 minutes and 15 seconds.
Response times for three other calls amounted to 16 minutes and 12 seconds on Aug. 13, 15 minutes and 56 seconds on Sept. 27, and 12 minutes and 12 seconds – also on Sept. 27. The outcome of the calls was not available.
“What we have seen is that the demand for ambulances have increased, yet we haven’t increased our fleet of ambulances – only by five,” Quane said.
Those five arrived in August 2018 – more than a year Mayor Lori Lightfoot told Zekman, “We know that we need more ambulances, and it’s my expectation, when we finalize the new fire contract, there will be more on ambulances coming online.”
The mayor made that comment in December of last year.
But the number of new ambulances included in the firefighters’ new contract turned out to be zero.
“It was the Fire Department’s answer is, ‘Well, we send the fire truck,’” Fitzmaurice said. “I’m sorry, but it doesn’t do any good.”
That is because while some fire trucks have paramedics, they cannot transport patients to the hospital – where much of the life-saving care takes place.
Kozlov asked Quane if the union was frustrated that new ambulances were not coming.
“I would say yeah, there would be some frustration on our aspect,” he said.
Fitzmaurice does not mince words. He blames CFD leadership more than the mayor.
“They look at the number. They know what’s going on. They know we need ambulances. But to them, it’s a zero-sum game,” he said. “They can’t go to the mayor and say, ‘We need 10 more ambulances right away,’ because they’re afraid the mayor’s going to say: ‘Well, you might have to give up some deputy district chiefs. You have to give up a couple of deputy fire commissioners.’”
Fitzmaurice said COVID-19, and the need to sterilize ambulances after every run, is adding to the problem.
“You don’t have an option to shortchange that process,” he said. “But sometimes, they’re doing that to get out, because they’re begging – literally begging – for ambulances to come up.”
And sometimes, there just isn’t an ambulance available.
But Fitzmaurice and the union keep hoping for change – even as the seasoned paramedic clocks out once last time.
“You know, it ain’t over till it’s over,” he said. “You know, football teams play until the gun goes off in the fourth quarter.”
The Fire Department declined our request for an interview, but in a statement, a representative said the department continues to ensure the ambulance fleet meets the needs of residents – which is why the placement of the most recently-added five ambulances was carefully chosen.
Kozlov asked a mayoral spokesperson if Mayor Lightfoot went back on her word. He did not directly answer the question, but indicated that discussions about more ambulances could come up when new contract negotiations get under way next summer.
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