East Boston getting by with 1 dedicated ambulance

A man is put into the back of an ambulance on Cedar Street in Mission Hill.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
A man is put into the back of an ambulance on Cedar Street in Mission Hill.

The number of emergency medical calls in Boston has risen sharply in recent years, and ambulance response times have risen in kind.

That’s especially true in East Boston, a fast-growing neighborhood of more than 40,000 people that has just one dedicated ambulance, which also responds to calls from Logan International Airport.

Boston Emergency Medical Services, which provides ambulance service across the city, sends backup ambulances when there are multiple calls. But that takes time, especially in tunnel traffic, and response times to East Boston are by far the city’s slowest.


In 2016, average response times for the most serious medical calls, known as Priority 1, were nearly eight minutes in East Boston, compared to 6.6 minutes in Charlestown, 6.1 minutes in South Boston, and 5.4 minutes in Roxbury, according to the Boston Public Health Commission. Citywide, average response times for such calls were around 6 minutes.

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State Representative Adrian Madaro, who represents East Boston, said the neighborhood is “woefully underserved.”

“We are geographically isolated from the rest of the city, which proves a problem in and of itself,” he said. “The next challenge is getting a second ambulance.”

City Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, who retired in November, tried to obtain funding in the current city budget for a second ambulance, but his proposal was voted down.

Steve Holt, who lives in Jeffries Point, said a delayed ambulance nearly cost his 2-year-old daughter her life. A year ago, he was holding Sage when she suddenly went stiff in his arms. She was experiencing her first seizure. As Sage’s 10-year-old brother rubbed her back, Holt called 911. Twenty minutes passed before an ambulance arrived to take her to Massachusetts General Hospital.


Sage is now a healthy, energetic 4-year-old. But Holt said things could have turned out differently. “It’s going to take somebody dying in their home, or on the street, for action to be taken,” Holt said. “They need to accommodate the East Boston of the future.”

While East Boston has borne the brunt of the problem, the city as a whole has seen response times rise in tandem with emergency calls. From 2005 to 2014, the number of 911 calls fielded by EMS climbed 26 percent, from about 95,500 to 120,000.

Other cities, including Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, have seen similar increases, but the cause is not clear. The aging population may be the driving factor, specialists said.

In East Boston, the single ambulance is in especially high demand because of Logan. In 2016, more than one-third of EMS calls were from the airport, according to city records.

Boston EMS chief James Hooley said the single ambulance responds to about 65 percent of calls in the neighborhood. Ambulances from other parts of the city handle the rest.


“It does depend on us having other units available that we can draw from,” Hooley said. “When we can anticipate it, we always try to augment coverage over there.”

The Boston Fire Department also responds automatically to most Priority 1 calls and covers some lower-priority calls when ambulances are delayed.

Ana Karina Vivas, a spokeswoman for the health commission, which oversees EMS, said dispatch protocols are dictated by the type of emergency and available resources. Private ambulances are also used for scheduled or nonemergency calls.

At any given time, there are 26 ambulances working out of 16 stations, city officials said.

Boston EMS has taken a number of steps to reduce response times. The agency hired 20 emergency medical technicians in 2016 and hopes to hire four more as part of a community assistance team that launched in late October, Hooley said.

The team can initiate care and help determine whether an ambulance is needed. By freeing up ambulances for other calls, the program has reduced response times by about 30 seconds, Hooley said.

Despite the gains, officials agree the neighborhood needs a second ambulance. The city has long eyed property in Eagle Square as a potential site for a new police station and ambulance garage.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll be seeing that in the near term,” Hooley said.

Lydia Edwards, a Boston city councilor who lives in East Boston, said the situation has gone unaddressed for too long.

“I live directly adjacent to the entrance of the tunnel and have seen the ambulance stalled in early morning traffic,” Edwards said. “The safety and well-being of our community is paramount to the overall quality of life for residents in East Boston.”

A fully equipped ambulance would cost about $300,000.

Margaret Farmer, a former director of the Jeffries Point Neighborhood Association, said she has urged elected officials to address the problem, a long-standing sore point for residents.

In the fall, Farmer wrote about the ambulance shortage on Facebook, a post that drew more than 10,000 views and strong reactions from residents, ambulance technicians, and airport employees.

But Farmer is skeptical  the city will take action unless something tragic happens.

“Someone is going to have to die in a very public way,” Farmer said.

Samantha J. Gross can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @samanthajgross