January 27, 2013

Medical emergencies make up bulk of calls

Fire-safety improvements propel a trend for which the city has remained 'very progressive.' Now, officials want to be certain staffing patterns are keeping pace with the shift.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Three-quarters of the 15,000 calls that Portland firefighters responded to last year were medical emergencies, not fires.

click image to enlarge

One of the Portland Fire Department’s Medcu trucks stands at the ready at the Central Fire Station on Congress Street last week. Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria, who stepped into the role early this month, says he’d like to see the city bolster its Emergency Medical Services capabilities.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

The fire department sends the nearest available units – ambulances and/or fire trucks – whenever it receives a medical emergency call.

2009 file photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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That is up from 65 percent of roughly the same number of calls the year before, continuing a trend driven by improved fire codes and fire prevention efforts.

Now, city officials are asking an independent consultant whether the fire department's staffing patterns have kept pace with that shift.

"I think it's important to see if we have the right mix or the right balance between our staffing patterns on firefighting and Medcu," Mayor Michael Brennan told the Press Herald when discussing the consultant's review in September.

Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria said he would like to see the city bolster its EMS capabilities.

LaMoria noted a Press Herald report about how new technology and techniques being used by the city's emergency responders -- a service known as advanced life support -- has increased the save rate from 6 percent last year to 17 percent so far this year on patients suffering cardiac arrest.

The fire department's EMS capabilities already are "very progressive" for an old department, said Les Adams, the Maryland-based consultant hired to review the department.

"The national trend is for fire-based emergency medical services, which is what Portland has," Adams said. "When we see a fire department that is so historic it is a bit unusual for us to find such progressive things going on."

In 2011, 15 percent of the fire departments in the United States, including Portland, provided EMS and advanced life support, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Forty-five percent provided EMS and 40 percent provided only fire service.

At least one Portland city councilor is questioning whether having firefighters respond to EMS calls is an efficient use of resources.

"There seems to be fairly widespread acceptance that 80 percent of Portland Fire Department's workload is EMS driven," said City Councilor Edward Suslovic, who chairs the public safety committee. "Are we best deployed when I see a very heavy, diesel-guzzling piece of fire apparatus chasing an ambulance to deliver personnel?"

LaMoria said the city has a policy of sending the nearest help when someone makes an EMS call. Oftentimes, firefighters are the first on the scene. Other times, they are routinely dispatched with ambulances.

The city does not have written policy on when a fire truck is dispatched to an EMS call. A computer dispatching system makes those decisions, said City Hall Spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:


Twitter: @randybillings


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