21 Aug 2014
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Why Fire Trucks Go Out On Rescue Calls

Fire Chief Henrikson and Deputy Chief McGillivray explain.

Why Fire Trucks Go Out On Rescue Calls

Many times, over my career, I have been asked, “Why it is necessary to send a fire truck on an ambulance or rescue call?” This is the Most Frequently Asked Question of the fire service. As the answer is not readily apparent to our taxpayers, I would like to explain why we send the fire truck on rescue calls.

All of the firefighters of the East Greenwich Fire District are cross trained to respond to both fire and emergency medical incidents. Every firefighter is an Emergency Medical Technician–Cardiac (EMT-C) licensed by the state. They are required to maintain their licensure throughout their careers. The EMT-Cardiac performs all measures of Advanced Life Support (ALS) Care as approved in the Rhode Island Pre-Hospital Protocol and Standing Orders.

When responding to a medical emergency, the Fire Engine (two people) responds along with the Rescue (two people) to assist with carrying all the necessary equipment, assisting with the treatment of the patient and possible transport of the patient to the rescue. In the more life-threatening cases, such as a CPR in progress, engine personnel may accompany the rescue during transport to the hospital. The engine may then also go to the hospital to retrieve people to become available for future incidents.

Some of this begs the question; is it really necessary for a rescue and a fire truck to respond to many of the minor injuries? It seems wasteful to drive a very fuel-inefficient fire engine to an incident where the additional personnel may not be needed. While there are some calls for emergency medical assistance that can easily be handled with just the two personnel on the rescue, there are many more that require additional help.

The practice of sending both a rescue and a fire engine, equipped with defibrillators, oxygen, and other first-aid essentials, to a medical call is widespread nationwide. And the reason, as most fire chiefs would say, is simple: With fire stations located strategically throughout a city or town and EMT’s often tied up for an hour or more on a single call, firefighters, even firefighters driving a bulky ladder truck, can often get to an emergency faster than a rescue and provide life-saving treatment as soon as possible.

Nearly every Emergency Medical Service (EMS) system sends a unit to “assist” the ambulance for a number of reasons. Many times there is not always 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 rescue arrives and makes an assessment. Also, even so-called “routine” medical calls require the patient to be removed from their home and lifted into the back of the rescue. Even if the patient is not obese, it is safer for the patient and for the backs of the EMT’s to have additional help to assist with moving and lifting.

Another example is when a fire engine and a rescue respond to auto accidents. The engine has many duties at this type of call including blocking traffic to ensure the safety of all first responders, stabilizing and making the vehicle safe to work in and around, perform heavy rescue tasks utilizing tools such as the Jaws-of-Life, and assisting with the treatment and removal of any injured occupants.

Another taxpayer concern is cost. The Fire District, as the provider of the town’s fire protection and emergency medical services, has already invested in the fire truck, the advanced medical equipment and medicines they carry, the salaries for the firefighters, and the fuel in the trucks, therefore, it would be imprudent to NOT send the fire engine and its personnel on what would even seem to be a minor medical call. When the fire truck is not needed on an incident, it is released to go back into service as soon as possible, or even respond to another emergency – whether a fire or rescue call. 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.

Chief Peter F. Henrikson
Deputy Chief Russell McGillivray, Jr.

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