Lengthy delays at emergency rooms have stressed LBFD’s ambulance system, fire officials say

The amount of time Long Beach ambulance crews spend waiting to offload patients at hospitals has increased over the past two months, prompting complaints from the firefighters union and concerns from Fire Department officials about the stress that places on the overall emergency response system.

“The system is not broken, it’s pretty heavily injured right now,” LBFD Chief Xavier Espino said Friday during a presentation to the City Council’s public safety committee.

During the presentation, fire officials highlighted the increase in lengthy wait times at the city’s two largest hospitals.

In December, LBFD ambulance crews waited more than 45 minutes to hand off their patient to emergency room staff at St. Mary Medical Center 18.4% of the time. In January, that grew to 27.2%.

At Long Beach Memorial Medical Center’s emergency room in December, it took more than 45 minutes to offload a patient 15.3% of the time. In January, that grew to 17.2%.

St. Mary Medical Center Chief Nursing Officer Gloria Carter said the staffing shortages are exacerbating the delays.

“This is an extremely challenging situation,” she said. “We are doing everything we can to ensure our hospital can continue to operate while also keeping our staff and patients safe.”

Memorial’s Chief Nursing Officer Tony Garcia said his hospital has expedited its hiring process in an effort to secure more nurses and other staff, and traveling nurses have also been brought in to fill in gaps. He pointed out that between December 2021 and January 2022, 60% of patients at the hospital were placed in an emergency department bed within 30 minutes of arriving.

During the omicron surge, health care and public safety workers have experienced one of their most challenging periods of the pandemic—handling more patients while still seeing coworkers drop out of the ranks due to quarantine periods or burnout.

During the peak of the surge in December 2021, the LBFD faced significant worker shortages with dozens of employees testing positive for COVID-19 and four personnel resigning by the New Year, officials said during the public safety committee presentation.

Morale has suffered with fire department employees being spread thin, according to Espino. And spending more time waiting at hospitals has downstream effects on that workload, officials explained.

It means engines and personnel at a hospital won’t be available for Long Beach residents until they are done offloading, said Rex Pritchard, the president of the union that represents Long Beach firefighters. In some instances, he said, rescue services have to be sent from across town to respond to emergency calls because there aren’t any nearby.

“It stresses our system beyond belief. The whole time there are still 911 calls going on,” Pritchard said.

He accused hospitals of using paramedics to fill gaps in their own staffing and to save money.

“The fire department tries its best to take care of a patient but once they get to the hospital it’s the hospital’s problem,” he said.

Garcia, from Memorial, denied that, saying the hospital is not use paramedics at all in its emergency department.

It wasn’t immediately clear how much the long waits at hospitals has affected response across the city. Fire officials said they’d gone up, but data wasn’t immediately available from the department.

During Friday’s meeting, Espino said the “easy” solution would be for the city to give the department three new engines and a couple of rescue personnel to make the “pain would go away.” But he called that plan “unrealistic,” citing large costs involved, with each engine alone being about $3 million.

Councilwoman Suely Saro, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said that now that these issues were brought to the committee’s attention, the city can begin to work to address them and find solutions.

Pritchard said the onus should be on hospitals to make sure firefighters aren’t stuck tending to patients who should have already been handed off to hospital personnel.

“There should be fines,” Pritchard said. “We get caught in a hard place dealing with two calls.”

For now, hospital officials are asking residents to be more careful about what they consider an emergency, with departments being more selective about who to admit based on urgency.

‘We don’t have beds staffed’: local hospitals grapple with nationwide nurse shortage

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Fernando Haro is the Long Beach Post's breaking news and public safety reporter.