Texas $130K dispatch upgrade aims to reduce calls

Currently, the Fire Department responds to every medical call, whether it's a true emergency or not

By Brian Bethel
The Abilene Reporter-News

ABILENE, Texas — A $130,000 emergency medical dispatch system should help the Abilene Fire Department and ambulance provider MetroCare reduce the number of medical calls the Fire Department responds to by at least 11 to 15 percent, said Ken Dozier, Abilene's fire chief.

"Some people say it's as high as 20 percent," Dozier said. "We really won't know until all of the parameters are in place."

MetroCare officials say that the system will also help ensure that an ambulance is always available for high-priority calls, while helping them respond better to all calls.

"To me, the key word is 'effciency,' " Dozier said.

Currently, the Fire Department responds to every medical call, whether it's a true emergency or not, Dozier said. About 75 percent of fire calls are for medical purposes, he said.

When the new system is in place, dispatchers will lead callers through a series of questions that will help screen situations for priority.

"We want to make sure that all of our medical resources are not tied up on minor calls, which can delay serious medical care," Dozier said. "At a certain point, there is no longer a medical need to send the Fire Department."

Neil White, director of operations for MetroCare, said that the changes will make "the entire prehospital system more efficient," including ambulance service. "It ensures that there is always an ambulance available for that truly critical call," he said, adding that the new protocols would help medical personnel respond more appropriately to all calls.

"The Fire Department doesn't have to roll on it, and we're not sending an ambulance running lights and sirens down the road, blowing through intersections and putting our lives in danger," he said of lower priority calls.

Protocols can be easily examined and tweaked over time, White said, to better reflect the current needs of the community.

Roughly $30,000 to $40,000 of the anticipated cost to implement the system represents training dispatchers to properly use the software, Dozier said. Dozier said he hoped to have the software by October, making that month, November and December the initial training period. If all goes as planned, the new system would be "up and running" in the new year, he said.

The plans will mean some changes to the way certain calls are handled, Dozier said.

Lower priority calls will be shuffled down the list in favor of responding to major traumas.

That could mean longer waits for some, but shorter response times for true emergencies, Dozier said. The Fire Department might be still be dispatched to certain calls if MetroCare is severely delayed or has run out of resources, he said.

"Communication is going to be key," Dozier said. "I think as we roll this out, it's going to be very important for both sides to know what the other side has waiting on them so we can prioritize our responses." White said that he was familiar with emergency medical-dispatch system software personally and had discussed its use with communities that use it.

"I've talked to some other EMS directors who use these systems, and they think they're great," White said. "They've freed up a lot of their resources." Communications Supervisor Wayne Brandt of the Abilene Police Department said he did not anticipate any need to increase the number of dispatchers employed by the city.

Employees will need to recertify in emergency medical dispatch every two years, he said.

"We looked at Bell County in their use of this software," he said. "They advised that initially, the software did slow down the calltakers putting medical calls into the system." But as dispatchers became more comfortable, their reaction time rose to previous levels, he said.

Dozier said that the only effect on the Fire Department financially from the changes might be fuel savings.

"I don't see our types of equipment having any significant changes as far as our projected budget," he said. Dozier said the Fire Department would ideally need some "history behind us" with the new system before he would consider asking for any budget alteration.

Similarly, White said that the changes would not immediately affect the amount of equipment or staffing MetroCare has on hand.

A 15-member advisory committee recommended in March that the city create a Fire Department-based ambulance service. Startup costs were estimated to be about $2.4 million, with operating expenses weighing in at $2.6 million each year.

But on Thursday, Dozier said that while it would still be necessary to periodically evaluate local EMS service "and see if changes are still needed," he said there is "some wisdom in us trying to strengthen our current partnership to make sure our ambulance provider is as successful as it can be."
It ensures that there is always an ambulance available for that truly critical call." Neil White, director of operations for MetroCare

Copyright 2011 The E.W. Scripps Company
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