Houston Fire Department ambulance crews spending more time on calls thanks to COVID-19

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Houston Fire Department ambulances have been stuck at emergency rooms longer as Houston sees a rise in COVID hospitalizations, said Fire Chief Sam Peña.

"There are times of the day when we're sitting at the hospital for well over an hour," Peña told ABC13. "Just the other day we had an ambulance there for over an hour and a half waiting to transfer a patient."

While four CEOs of Texas Medical Center hospital systems gathered on a virtual call to reassure people that they have surge plans in place to add many more beds, that doesn't necessarily mean it happens fast. EMTs have been experiencing backups at emergency rooms, Peña said, as 911 medical calls also rise.

"It has a downstream impact for us. When we deliver our patients, and there's no room, no availability, we essentially are having to wait on a bed at the emergency room to transfer our patients over so we can get back in service. That, in and of itself, is impacting our availability of units on the street," Peña said.

Just two days ago, they were down to 30% ambulance availability, he said. The fire department has had to shift units around the city to respond to calls. Managing ambulances, fire trucks and staff is nothing new for HFD, but Peña said the public can help, too.

"What we recommend to the public is to reserve 9-1-1 for true medical emergencies. If you feel like you're having symptoms, a sore throat, aches, call your primary care physician and reserve 9-1-1, the limited resources of 9-1-1 for true medical emergencies," Peña said.

Peña also reported 180 firefighters are currently in quarantine due to exposure or diagnosis. That's compared to 36 three weeks ago.

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