The First Responder to Some Low-Priority Medical Calls in Multnomah County Might No Longer Be a Paramedic

It’s a major milestone in the county’s efforts to address slow ambulances.

FIRST RESPONDERS: Portland Street Response and American Medical Rescue paramedics on a call for service, NE 35th and Clackamas. (Brian Burk)

As of Monday afternoon, special ambulances staffed with non-paramedics are being dispatched directly to some low-priority calls in Multnomah County, according to a new operational policy document dated yesterday and obtained by WW.

It’s an effort to address a shortage of paramedics that has left the county with too few ambulances on duty and delayed response times. The county launched the pilot program earlier this year that replaces paramedics on some “basic life support” ambulances with two lesser-trained emergency medical technicians.

But for months, the ambulances couldn’t respond alone—the county required them be accompanied by another paramedic-staffed ambulance because officials didn’t have faith in dispatchers to reliably identify low-priority calls.

No longer. In a statement yesterday, the county confirmed the change. “We will be monitoring closely to address any issues that may come up in the next several days as we use this new process,” says the county health department’s spokeswoman, Sarah Dean. “The decision was made after a thorough review of the calls and the types of patients within those call types.”

This marks the beginning of a true “two-tiered” ambulance dispatch system in Multnomah County. The system is considered the gold standard and has been implemented successfully in cities like Seattle and New York City. In 2021, BLS ambulances responded alone to 80% of calls in Seattle.

For now, according to the county EMS policy document, “BLS ambulances will now be dispatched directly to 130 triage call types.” There are three active BLS ambulances, it says, numbered 400, 401 and 402.

But Dean says only two are currently on duty. The county has said American Medical Response has struggled to hire not only paramedics, but EMTs as well, and Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson recently announced she would begin fining AMR for its poor performance.

AMR vice president of Northwest operations Randy Lauer says the company is currently training 16 EMTs and plans to have eight BLS ambulances running within a month.

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