'Someone is going to die': 25 Investigates finds dangerous ambulance shortage

Boston Emergency Medical Services is plagued by ambulance and staff shortages, long delays and an unusual practice that forces patients to share an ambulance with strangers on the way to the hospital, 25 Investigates uncovered.

A 25 Investigates’ review of Boston EMS found a dangerous situation for those who live, work or visit Boston and need emergency medical attention.

The review found:

  • City ambulances with delayed response times to 911 calls going back years – including a 2-year-old East Boston girl seizing for nearly 20 minutes as her family waited for an ambulance to arrive.
  • There are times when no city ambulances are available to respond to serious emergencies at all.
  • First responders ordered to function like a shared taxi or bus service – stopping to pick up two patients from two separate calls in the same ambulance on their way to the hospital.

Steve Holt told 25 Investigates an ambulance delay in December put his little girl's life in danger.
Holt was at home in East Boston Dec. 12 when he saw his 2-year-old daughter's eyes roll back into her head and she began to have a seizure – something that had never happened before.

Holt says he immediately dialed 911.

“It was absolutely terrifying,” said Holt. “In total, we think she was seizing between 18 and 20 minutes.”

Holt said he knows how long she was seizing because that’s how long he had to wait for an ambulance to arrive to rush his daughter to a local hospital.

Holt told 25 Investigates he was shocked it took so long.

“Someone is going to die before an ambulance gets to them,” said Holt. “That’s the way this ends unfortunately unless changes are made.”

Delayed response not uncommon

Over a four-month review, 25 Investigates found that Holt’s experience is hardly an isolated incident.

The city’s own records show Boston EMS hasn’t met its goal of responding to the most critical calls in six minutes or less since 2013.

There are also times when Boston has no city ambulances to respond to multiple high priority medical emergencies because they are already tied up on other calls.

Boston EMS Chief James Hooley points to rising call volumes.

On any given day, Boston is bursting with more than a million people headed to offices, restaurants, night clubs and sporting events.

But Hooley denies the shortage is a dangerous situation, telling 25 Investigates ambulance availability changes “moment to moment.”

“If you have 27 ambulances on the street during peak times, there’s always a possibility there’s going to be more calls coming in per hour,” said Hooley.

When asked whether there were enough ambulances and staff for Boston, Hooley said, “For most hours of the day, for most times, we’re doing ok, but we’re tracking that.”

Patients forced to share amid shortage

Hooley said the city doesn’t track when there are no ambulances available.

But 25 Investigates found that front-line staff at Boston EMS have been quietly tracking how often it happens, announcing “zero availability” on a Facebook page run by off-duty staff several times a month.

At least six Boston EMTs and paramedics told 25 Investigates there have been times they’ve been ordered to pick up two patients – from two separate calls – in the same ambulance on their way to the hospital.

“Why would you ever put more than one person in an ambulance?” Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen asked Chief Hooley.

Hooley insisted incidents of two strangers sharing an ambulance are rare, saying, “It’s about trying to be a little more efficient.”

Chief struggles to fill jobs

Records obtained by 25 Investigates show Boston EMS is so busy that it had to call in help from private ambulances to respond to calls more than 100 times a month – just so far this year.

But 25 Investigates found that those private ambulances don’t work for taxpayers and patients with private insurance could end up being charged more for rides to the hospital.

In a move to step up response times, the city added 20 full-time staff positions and two more ambulances to its fleet last year, but the department has not been able to hire enough staff to fill all its job openings. Even after 24 new recruits graduate from the academy in December, there will still be 17 job vacancies, according to Hooley, who said he relies on overtime to make sure all ambulances are staffed.

In similarly sized Washington, D.C., which has also struggled with response times in the past, the city has 39 ambulances – a number that easily outpaces Boston’s 27 ambulances.

Concerns in East Boston

There’s only one ambulance assigned to East Boston – the neighborhood where Steve Holt lives, which includes Logan Airport.

But 25 Investigates couldn’t get specific answers on why it took an ambulance so long to get to Steve Holt’s daughter.

Boston EMS spokeswoman Marje Nesin repeatedly interrupted when Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen tried to ask Chief Hooley during a sit-down interview.

Nesin insisted Hooley couldn’t comment at all – even to address Holt’s safety concerns about response times in East Boston.

25 Investigates asked for the dispatch recordings from the day Holt called 911 to review the city’s response.

But Boston EMS has yet to provide them – even after Holt signed a medical privacy waiver.

Holt said his little girl ended up being OK after her medical scare – thanks to an off-duty EMT who lives next door and stepped in to help while they waited for an ambulance.

He told 25 Investigates his gripe is not with the men and women of Boston EMS.

“They are doing the very best they can with the resources that they have, but they just need more resources,” said Holt.