Howard Co. quick EMS, COVID-19 surge alert may happen again, officials say

Howard County, Maryland, activated its EMS Surge Plan late on Sunday, and discontinued it an hour later. Officials in the county said that those types of alerts could happen again as first responders navigate COVID-19.

The alert, which moved the county to EMS Surge Level I, was activated to encourage 911 calls only for life-threatening emergencies as the county works to staff additional ambulances and remove strain from hospital emergency departments.

Marc Fischer, a spokesman for Howard County Fire and Rescue, told WTOP that officials are working with hospital emergency departments to make sure they can respond to calls.

“Because of the crowded conditions, because of the long wait times that everyone is experiencing across the country, we want to make sure we’re being proactive,” Fischer said.

He explained that their three levels of operations — Normal, Surge Level 1 and Surge Level 2 — also help to alert volunteer fire departments to an increased need for ambulance staff.

“We’re close to a point where we could be out of ambulances to respond to 911 calls,” Fischer said, describing Surge Level I protocols.

To help avoid significant challenges like triaging 911 calls, Fischer asks that callers be mindful of the content of their 911 calls while the system is overwhelmed.

“We don’t want to discourage people from making the 911 call,” he said. “But the important thing is at this point, with the system as stretched as it is, those 911 calls that are not truly emergencies may have an impact on people who really, truly need a paramedic or an ambulance at the scene.”

According to Fischer, the average ambulance fleet totals roughly 15 in a county of over 300,000 people. He said that when five or fewer ambulances are available, surge levels are activated across the county as the fleet of available ambulances responds to emergencies.

“Just like everybody, I think we’re all dealing with this omicron surge,” he said, noting that these issues aren’t just limited to Howard County. “It’s a statewide issue.”

WTOP’s Juan Herrera contributed to this report.

Ivy Lyons

Ivy Lyons is a digital journalist for Since 2018, they have worked on Capitol Hill, at NBC News in Washington, and with WJLA in Washington.

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