In an emergency, expect to wait 30 minutes for an ambulance in Atlanta

He fell and broke his hip. It took two hours for an ambulance to show up. CBS46 investigates response times getting progressively longer in Atlanta.
Published: Jul. 11, 2022 at 12:00 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 14, 2022 at 6:43 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) - Earlier this year, CBS46 reported on the thousands of people in the city of Atlanta calling 911 and being placed on hold.

Now, a new CBS46 investigation shows even after callers get through to 911, delays don’t stop there. That investigation has uncovered in critical situations, the average Atlanta resident is waiting nearly 30 minutes for EMS to arrive.

‘There may be a significant wait’

When a city of Atlanta resident calls 911, they’re asked if they need police, fire or EMS. If a caller needs EMS, the 911 dispatcher will transfer that call to Grady EMS, which provides 911 services to the city of Atlanta and 16 other counties across Georgia.

Moments after a bad fall, Randy Hubbell knew his partner was in trouble, so he grabbed his phone and dialed 911.

“I need to get an ambulance over to our residence,” Hubbell told 911. “My partner has fallen down and he has hurt his hip.”

Hubbell made that call at 9:30 p.m. this past February. Forty minutes later, no ambulance had arrived at his Atlanta home, so he called again.

“We have the call, sir,” the Grady EMS dispatcher said. “And I do want to apologize. We are experiencing a delay. We have a very high call volume in your area. Has anything changed with his breathing or level of consciousness?”

“No, but he’s not mobile,” Hubbell answered. “Is there any new pain or bleeding?” the Grady EMS dispatcher asked. “No,” Hubbell replied.

“Okay. Given the high volume of calls we are experiencing, we are prioritizing your call based on his symptoms and there may be a significant wait,” the Grady dispatcher said. “One of our providers will be sent to evaluate you at your home within the next few hours based on our call volume.”

The fall broke Hubbell’s partner’s hip. While in severe pain, they waited. It took Grady EMS two hours to arrive.

“To be put in a queue because he wasn’t bleeding and he wasn’t having a cardiac experience, yet he was not mobile, he could not go to the bathroom and was experiencing a heavy degree of pain, it’s just very disappointing and sad,” Hubbell said.

Grady EMS categorizes 911 calls as Echo, Delta or Other/ Non-emergent. Echo means the caller indicates there is ineffective breathing at any point during the call. Delta indicates a life-threatening emergency medical call.

For the first five months of 2022, Grady EMS said its average monthly response time for critical calls (Echo and Delta) was between 10 and 13 minutes. For less urgent calls (Non-emergent), Grady EMS said its average monthly response time was about 17 minutes.

1st assigned to 1st arrived for 2022 (Average in minutes):

A CBS46 investigation uncovered that in critical situations, the average Atlantan is waiting...
A CBS46 investigation uncovered that in critical situations, the average Atlantan is waiting nearly 30 minutes for EMS to arrive.(WGCL)

But for someone waiting on an ambulance, CBS46 Investigates uncovered it’s actually much longer because Grady’s clock does not start when you make the call, and the dispatcher answers. It only starts when the ambulance is assigned, or sent out.

CBS46 Investigates combed through dozens of state health records and uncovered overall response times were dramatically higher than Grady EMS suggested.

In fact, Grady’s average monthly response time for critical and emergent calls, according to state records, was between 22 and 29 minutes for the first five months of 2022. For less urgent calls (Lower Acuity and Non-Acute Requests), the average monthly response time was between 46 and 89 minutes.

This is not a new trend. According to the same state records, Grady’s response times for life-threatening calls more than doubled over the last 15 months and quadrupled for less urgent calls.

For some perspective, we also talked with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) about its guidelines for response times. Including dispatch, turnout and travel time, the NFPA calls for an overall response time between 6.5 and 11 minutes.

When Grady EMS was asked about its response guidelines or standards, we were told that Grady’s standard is “best effort.”

“I’m not going to make any excuses,” Keisha Sean Waites, the Post 3 At-large member of the Atlanta City Council, said. “That is unacceptable.”

Waites, who served on the public safety committee while in the General Assembly, also has senior leadership experience at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She said Grady EMS’ response times are impacting public safety across the city.

“We’re all a team, so if one is having challenges, we’re all having challenges, and it’s my hope we can figure out how to get them the resources to thrive,” she said.

Grady responds

John Hanson, senior vice president of Grady EMS, agreed no one should have to wait so long for an ambulance.

“It wouldn’t be our hope that anyone would wait that long,” Hanson said. “The reality of where we are now, the staffing levels, and the levels of calls, there are instances where someone may have to wait a lengthy time for an ambulance.”

Like his counterpart at Atlanta’s E-911 center who was questioned by CBS46 last month about 911 hold times, Hanson offered a similar explanation.

“I think you can attribute most of it to staffing shortages,” Hanson said.

RELATED: Bystanders jump in as Atlanta woman waits on hold for 911

While Grady EMS budgets for 200 full-time paramedics and EMT’s, it currently has only 145 full-time employees.

Hanson said Grady EMS implemented a new operations plan in May that included a complete restructuring of Grady’s dispatch protocols. Medic trucks are now only responding to life-threatening calls, while basic trucks, or single-driver cars, are responding to lower level calls.

Grady EMS also says they have increased pay for paramedics and EMT’s, while implementing both sign-on and retention bonuses.

“We need as much support as possible and we’d ask everyone to work with us as we work through these changes,” Hanson said. “We’ll take the criticisms and the challenges but we’re going to work through them and we fix things.”

What’s next?

Meanwhile, there is talk among city leaders about Atlanta starting its own ambulance service.

As we’ve reported, the city is in the process of building a “micro station” for emergency medical services in southwest Atlanta. A city spokesman confirms that construction has started on that station located at 4532 Campbellton Road. Construction is slated for completion by the end of this year.

If there’s something you would like CBS46 investigates to dig into, fill out this submission form.