By Leisa Zigman I-Team Reporter
ST. LOUIS (KSDK) - What if you called 911 and there were no ambulances available?
An I-Team analysis of public documents shows it is happening in the City of St. Louis almost every single day. While private companies usually cover the gap, we found multiple times when the city, its hospitals, and its citizens have no ambulances at all.
EMS responded to 90,000 emergency calls last year. St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson is in charge of EMS and the Fire Department.
"I look at the numbers everyday of how many calls we have....everyday," said Chief Jenkerson.
Because of overtime costs, a high turnover rate, and the time it takes to train new paramedics, the chief started taking two of his 12 ambulances out of service, almost daily. First responders call it a brownout.
Paramedics like Melissa Rieger say, "That does put people at risk."
Reiger is also 3rd Vice President of The International Association of Fire Fighters, Paramedics, EMTs and Dispatchers Local 73. She says the life and death impact of a brownout results in slower response times.
"The national average is eight minutes. Today I ran a cardiac arrest and it took us 13 minutes," explained Rieger.
When there are brownouts paramedics say, it creates a hole in service. That hole they say creates an almost daily situation called NUA or no units available.
Chief Jenkerson takes issue with claims there is a delay in response times.
"With no units available, I think you are increasing your risk. Do I think the public's at risk? No. We still maintain our ability to respond to all emergencies," he said.
When city EMS doesn't have units available, private firms like Gateway and Abbott pick up the slack. But private firms cost patients more money.
For example, when the city responds to an advanced life support emergency it costs taxpayers $525.
When Abbott responds, it costs $925. That is a $400 difference.
If you need basic life support, the city charges $425, while Abbott charges $575.
It will cost you nearly double if you need an IV or life support for something like cardiac arrest or a major trauma. City EMS charges $625 while Abbott charges $1,060.
A spokesperson for Mayor Francis Slay's office said there is a difference in rates because the city hasn't had an increase since 2009 and that is currently subject to change.
Paramedics say the greatest concern is when the whole city is NUA, meaning no private or city ambulances are available to respond to emergency 911 calls.
The I-Team reviewed the past six months of NUA data. It showed there were 27 times citizens in St. Louis couldn't get an ambulance. But city officials insist the time you couldn't get an ambulance was short, infact they say it was less than two minutes in each of those 27 cases.
"Seconds count in heart attacks and strokes," said Rieger. "I don't personally know anybody that has died.....yet....It would not surprise me at all if there were cases where people had permanent long term damage due to not getting help immediately."
Chief Jenkerson completely disagrees saying there are adequate resources and any suggestion to the contrary is false. He added the public is safe and protected with the current number of ambulances on the streets.
He also takes issue with paramedics saying there is a delayed response time. He points out fire trucks go on 911 calls and typically arrive within four minutes.
"A fire truck always responds. A fire truck does have AED [automated external defibrillator].They do have oxygen. They are able to work on an individual. But they can't transport," he said.
The I-Team checked the number of ambulances in similar sized cities. When there is no brown out, St. Louis has 12 ambulances to cover 64 square miles.
Cleveland has 18 ambulances to cover 77 square miles.
And Pittsburgh has 13 ambulances covering 55 miles from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m., then shifts down to nine ambulances overnight.
"The fire department is budgeted to have 12 ambulances in service so at the very least we want to see the 12 ambulances in service every day," said Riger.
Chief Jenkerson contends the paramedic's union is circulating misinformation and says the department has adequate resources. Any suggestion to the contrary, he says, is false.