St. Thomas EMS Operating with Only Two Ambulances
The Virgin Islands Daily News, St. Thomas
June 12—Calling 911 during an emergency and being told no ambulances are available seems too nightmarish to be true.
But for one St. Thomas resident, the experience was all too real and led her to transport an ailing relative to the hospital on her own.
"I was scared and panicked," the resident told The Daily News. "I didn't know when an ambulance would be available."
The resident, who chose not to be identified, described how her relative appeared to suffer from a stroke Wednesday evening.
When she contacted 911, she was told by the operator that the island's two operating ambulances were already dispatched on other calls.
She would have to wait—or, as the operator suggested, try to find a way to the hospital herself.
The resident chose the latter.
"I decided to drive to the hospital," she said. "I was scared because my relative's eyes were already starting to roll back."
While the supposed stroke turned out to be a seizure that was not life-threatening, the lapse in responsiveness raises questions about the territory's emergency medical services and whether it remains undermanned and perhaps overstretched.
According to David Sweeney, acting territorial EMS coordinator, the biggest challenge facing ambulance services today is manpower.
"Currently, we have 44 trained EMTs in the territory," he said. "Optimally, we'd like 70, but the money is just not there to fund EMT positions."
According to Sweeney, while other government departments have similar shortfalls, a shortage with emergency services could mean the difference between life and death.
As a result, prioritizing calls is paramount, he said.
"We have two ambulances staffed and ready to go every day on St. Thomas and St. Croix and one ambulance on St. John—each has a minimum of two EMTs aboard," Sweeney said. "We also have a supervisor and paramedic on call with a truck that will go and stabilize an emergency until an ambulance gets there."
Sweeney said he was not aware of the call involving the St. Thomas resident and her relative.
"If both ambulances are out on a call, the operators will tell callers 'there will be a slight delay,' " Sweeney said. "But the paramedic will make the determination dependent on the nature of the call. Anytime there is a shortage of a service, you have to prioritize— the nature of the call determines the response."
According to V.I. Health Commissioner Michelle Davis, it's "very rare" that an ambulance has not been available to pick up someone in need.
She acknowledged, however, the department's staff shortages.
"In the Health Department, we need more people for just about everything we do," she said. "We do have some vacant positions and we will be interviewing to bring on additional staff."
Davis said 30 to 40 EMT job interviews were scrapped due to last year's hurricanes.
Members of the V.I. Fire Service and local rescue units are being EMS-trained to augment current EMTs, Davis said.
"The governor and his team have also made recommendations for all traditional first responders, like nurses and EMTs, to get increases for entry-level positions," Davis said. "We're hoping the Senate approves that because that will help us in terms of our recruiting efforts."
Davis and Sweeney both said the Health Department is not experiencing shortages in ambulances or supplies.