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Tokyo Fire Department had record high emergency calls, ambulance dispatches in 2022

Tokyo Fire Department staff respond to 119 emergency calls at its general command center in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Jan. 13, 2023. (Mainichi/Maki Kihara)

TOKYO -- The number of 119 emergency calls received by the Tokyo Fire Department in 2022 was 1,036,645 according to preliminary data, the highest figure since 2015, when the current counting method was introduced.

    It was the first time the number of emergency calls topped 1 million, and the figure was up about 138,000 cases from the previous year. The number of ambulance dispatches also reached a record high of 872,101, up some 128,000 from 2021, and the workload of emergency personnel remains tight amid the coronavirus pandemic, which shows no signs of easing.

    Shortly after 2 p.m. on Jan. 13, green lights were flashing incessantly here and there at the fire department's general command center in the capital's Chiyoda Ward, where emergency calls were being consolidated from Tokyo's 23 wards. Without a break, the workers glanced at the monitors on their desks as they handled the calls one after another. Fire Lieutenant Yuzo Fujino said, "The calls have been coming in nonstop since last year."

    According to the Tokyo Fire Department, the number of emergency calls and ambulance dispatches related to COVID-19 patients and heat stroke patients surged in 2022 due to the record-breaking heat wave in addition to the seventh wave of coronavirus infections. There were times when the staff had to give up their breaks and call in other administrative staff to respond to the calls.

    The ambulance dispatch rate has regularly exceeded 95%, and there is a chronic shortage of the vehicles. The average time for an ambulance to arrive at the scene of an emergency was nine minutes and 43 seconds, up two minutes and 23 seconds from 2021. Total ambulance service time per case also reached a record high, averaging 113 minutes and 59 seconds, up 16 minutes and 22 seconds from the previous year.

    Even now, in the eighth wave of Japan's COVID-19 infections, the number of emergency calls and ambulance dispatches is increasing, and the fire department continues to just barely handle the situation. However, they said that the coronavirus is not the only factor contributing to tight operations. About 20% of the calls include nonemergencies and pranks, such as "There is a suspicious person and I want you to come and look," "I want you to turn off the air conditioner," "Where can I get a coronavirus test?" The response to these calls also adds to the already chaotic emergency services system.

    Normally, it takes only a minute or two to secure an ambulance after recognizing a fire or other emergency, but it takes longer to process a nonessential call because it requires a response such as directing the caller to another consulting organization. There have been many cases where an ambulance was dispatched but it was not necessary to transport the patient to the hospital.

    Fujino said, "Sometimes we cannot immediately accept a call where somebody really needs help." The fire department urges people to refrain from calling 119 for nonemergencies, and instead call its consultation center at #7119 if they are not sure whether to call an ambulance.

    (Japanese original by Maki Kihara and Ayumu Iwasaki, Tokyo City News Department)

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