AUSTIN -- A KVUE Defenders/Austin American-Statesman joint investigation has found mechanical issues are interrupting responses by Austin-Travis County EMS ambulances and that the overall number of breakdowns spiked in 2013.
In a three-year period, EMS experienced 338 "critical failures," which happen when an ambulance assigned to a call is unable to complete the response. That's an average of about once every three days.
The number of critical failures also rose from 99 in 2012 to 119 last year, records show.
"There is nothing, nothing more frustrating than being let down by the transportation part of what we do,” said Tony Marquardt, president of the Austin-Travis County EMS Employee Association. “It’s something that is beyond our control.”
Comparing the frequency of local EMS breakdowns among its 73 ambulances to similarly sized cities is difficult; Many systems do not track how often they happen. But the Defenders found Austin's rate of critical failures is as much as three times the rate as EMS systems that serve Fort Worth and Charlotte, for example.
Officials cite several factors.
During an economic downturn several years ago, EMS did not get funding to buy all of the ambulances it requested. The system also has dozens of Ford F-450 ambulances that officials said have been plagued with engine problems. Of the 338 breakdowns, nearly 100 were from those ambulances.
Additonally, the city's fleet department, which services EMS ambulances, does not perform the same level of preventive maintenance as some systems -- issue highlighted in a city audit last year.
EMS officials said they are not aware of a patient whose condition was made worse by a critical failure. Dispatchers usually are able to send the next available ambulance, prolonging a response only briefly, they said.
But, "any number is too high," said EMS assistant director James Shamard.