For the first time Tuesday, regional council heard just how bad the situation with ambulance delays in Waterloo Region really is, and how much worse it could get.

According to a report from the director Waterloo Region Emergency Services, the region is seeing 'code reds' for the first time, where no ambulances are available to be dispatched to new calls.

The report, based on data from the last six months of 2010, shows they are happening as often as 17 times every month. And it is taking anywhere from one minute to two hours before and ambulance becomes available.

It also depicts an EMS system that is under severe stress, and highlights just how much the situation has deteriorated since the beginning of 2011.

Overcrowding at local hospitals is also aggravating the situation by causing offloading delays, as ambulances cannot leave until patient care is transferred over to the hospital.

John Prno, director of Waterloo Region EMS, says February was the worst month EMS has ever seen, "It sort of went from offload crisis to offload crisis with a day in between."

He says there were more than 500 offload delays in February alone, with one delay that even lasted for close to 8.5 hours. There were also 32 code reds, a situation that lasted more than four hours in one case.

Waterloo Mayor Brenda Halloran says "How are we going to tell people that, and explain it. It's just unbelievable."

The region has been forced to call in ambulances from places like Guelph and Stratford, a scenario that impacts response times.

Regional Councillor Tom Galloway says the situation is unacceptable.

Prno adds that the situation is both tiring and demoralizing for paramedics. In some cases they end up standing in emergency rooms for hours, and only going on one call per shift.

Ontario Health and Long-Term Care Minister Deb Matthews says she is aware of the situation and the Waterloo-Wellington LHIN is working to find a solution.

"We have invested in ambulance offload nurses...who help speed the transition from the ambulance to emergency department. We know that's working, we know there's more to do. Today's story underlines there's more to do."

Regional councillors are also frustrated, as their hands are essentially tied as local hospitals struggle with overcrowding.

Region of Waterloo Chair Ken Seiling says "Our hospitals are working on it, but without being able to move people out of the hospital and freeing up beds, our ambulances will continue to be backed up."

In an attempt to clear backlogs, EMS has also changed how it responds to less urgent calls, "We will delay those transports by up to 20 minutes to maintain ambulance coverage in the community," Prno says.

He says it used to be those less urgent cases that were backed up in offload delays, but increasingly it's those suffering from chest pain or shortness of breath that are left waiting to be admitted.

Hospitals and EMS have also started tracking those who visit the emergency room or call for an ambulance on a frequent basis, more than 12 times a month, to see if there are other solutions.