During a medical emergency, seconds count. Someone calls 9-1-1 stating they are having difficulty breathing. How precise is the 9-1-1 operator’s triage? Is it a precursor to a heart attack, stroke or are they having a panic attack? Is the breathing difficulty due to inhaling toxic fumes? How long can they afford to wait, 5, 10, 15 minutes? Where is the patient located, upstairs, downstairs, in a basement, in a tree, on the roof, trapped under a fallen book case? Is there enough reliable information on the patient’s condition to determine if additional help is needed? Valuable time may be lost if additional personnel are not dispatched until the ambulance arrives and makes an assessment.
It is important to recognize no medical call is “routine”. There is no way of knowing what is needed on each call, or what will be encountered. As such, the dispatch is based on a worst-case scenario.
Generally speaking the fire engine is closer to an incident because fire stations are strategically located within a community. This allows for a very quick response time, usually faster than the ambulance will arrive. So they can get there first, stabilize and wait for the ambulance. The crews on the fire engines are trained to handle basic life support medical emergencies as well as ancillary problems associated with any number of emergency situations. Ancillary problems include removing patients from difficult locations such as bath rooms, upper floors or down narrow hallways, extrication of patients from vehicles and equipment; addressing spilled or leaking flammable and combustible liquids, and ensuring for overall scene safety of the general public, first responders, and patients. Additional personnel on scene make these situations easier on the patient and other emergency personnel.
In critical situations timely treatment of patients is paramount. To ensure the best possible care the Fire Department will work in tandem with trained and equipped medical professionals. With additional personnel on scene treatment can be performed at a quicker pace and advanced treatments such as IV’s, intubations, and medication administration can be performed simultaneously to ensure that the patient has the greatest chances of surviving the emergency. People are alive today because the Fire Department responded to their medical emergency.
But why are fire engines sent? Chief Louder of the Contra Costa Fire Protection District was asked this question while speaking at a recent Contra Costa Taxpayers Association event: “People ask why we show up with a fire truck… the reality is the fire truck it is a very versatile and flexible platform for us to be able to conduct our operation. If we respond from the firehouse to an emergency medical call, as soon as that patient is taken care of by AMR, that unit (fire engine) becomes available for the next call. If that happens to be a fire call or a rescue call our firefighters are already on a fire fighting unit and respond directly from that incident to the next incident. They don’t have to go back and switch units. They don’t have to have a single person driving a fire truck that is trying to go on an emergency response, watch the road, talk on the radio, look at a map, and do all that type of stuff themselves. So we keep them together as a unit, they go to the calls, they get in service and they get ready for the next call and it really gives us a very efficient, flexible, platform for us to do multiple types of operations for an all hazards system.”
If a smaller vehicle is used instead of a fire engine staffing models would need to change to adequately staff these vehicles. In order to do that people would be taken off the fire engines to man those vehicles or additional people would be needed on each shift to staff those vehicles. Should there be a call for a fire or other emergency the fire engine and its crew can respond directly to that incident without having to return to the station and get the fire engine. Additionally there are many times when the ambulances are committed to other incidents. In these cases the closest fire engine will be sent as a first response unit. Fire engines are supplied with medical equipment that allows the firefighters to begin appropriate care while they wait for an ambulance.
When the fire engine is not needed on an incident, it is released to go back into service as soon as possible. The cost of the fuel to have the extra help immediately available when it is needed is a small cost when compared to the loss of precious minutes when a life is on the line.