Kansas City's ambulance response times have worsened significantly since December because dispatchers are asking more questions of emergency callers, a city audit found Wednesday.
The change in the dispatch protocol has made the Fire Department's median ambulance dispatch time one minute slower than when MAST ambulances handled calls, according to the audit. And that has contributed to a significant decline in the Fire Department's overall response-time performance.
Councilman John Sharp, chairman of the council's public safety committee, said he was alarmed at the finding. He said he thought the department should re-evaluate how dispatchers are interrogating callers before they dispatch an ambulance.
"It's taking too long," Sharp said, while acknowledging he had supported trying the new protocol late last year. "I didn't think it would add this much time."
Ambulance response times have been an issue with the City Council since shortly after the Fire Department took over the ambulances from Metropolitan Ambulance Services Trust in April 2010.
But the audit found that the city's ambulance response times were similar to MAST's between May 2010 and November 2011. Both groups generally responded to life-threatening emergencies in less than nine minutes between 82 percent and 89 percent of the time.
But since the dispatch protocol changed in December, the monthly response times citywide have met the nine-minute standard only 74 percent to 79 percent of the time.
Interim Fire Chief Paul Berardi said there were good reasons for changing the dispatch protocol, which is part of a national trend in emergency response. He said it makes sense for dispatchers to ask callers more questions to establish the exact nature of the emergency and how best to respond.
"This was not a whimsical decision," he said.
Deputy Chief Sal Monteleone said the new approach had helped the department dramatically reduce the number of times ambulances had to be called back or rerouted.
But Sharp said the City Council would have to revisit that policy, given its impact on response times.