NYC’s 911 Overwhelmed With Record Number of Emergency Medical Calls

By Polly Mosendz
March 25, 2020

Calls to New York City’s 911 medical services hit their highest levels since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to emergency workers’ unions, stretching staffs that have already seen their own ranks thinned by coronavirus infections.

Medical emergency calls are up 40% to about 6,500 a day, according to Oren Barzilay, president of Local 2507, a union that represents emergency medical technicians, paramedics, fire inspectors and dispatchers.

“Our busiest day of the year, we usually do 5,000 calls. That’s usually New Years Day. We have shattered a record last night,” Barzilay said, attributing the surge to respiratory cases consistent with Covid-19 symptoms. “Due to the spike, we have some calls that are waiting three, four hours to get an ambulance.”

Emergency medical service, or EMS, employees expect this record will be shattered many times over in the coming weeks. By 10 a.m. Wednesday, there were so many calls that there were already delays in responding. Three weeks ago, the department was fielding about 20 calls a day about coronavirus. That jumped to 300 a day last week, and the number has increased exponentially since then.

Anthony Almojera, vice president of Local 3621, which represents EMS officers in the fire department, said there were more “fever and cough” calls on Saturday than normal. Other calls, such as for chest tightness or pain, also turned out to be virus related.

“Most since September 11th,” Almojera said.

New York’s 911 system is operated by both the New York City Police Department and the Fire Department of New York City. Police call takers answer first and determine whether to route the call to a police dispatcher, fire department representative, or emergency medical services. There are about 2,000 911 call takers throughout the system, with the majority in police and about 400 in EMS and 200 in fire.

The already overloaded system is being further strained as workers fall ill. Over 200 are out sick, Barzilay said. The fire department, which manages EMS staff, is not providing coronavirus testing, so employees have to go to testing sites and hospitals on their own.

As more and more staff get sick, the department is unsure how they will manage the soaring volume of calls.

“We are already past the surge for our system. We passed that mark,” Barzilay said. “If we lose another 10% of people to falling ill from this, I think the city is going to being a crisis.”