SUV rides to the rescue for Fire District 3

Use of Chevy Tahoe instead of fire engine to answer medical calls saves time, money, wear and tear on expensive vehicles

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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Fire District 3's main station in Hockinson is lowering its emergency response times and saving resources by sending a Chevy Tahoe instead of a fire engine to its medical calls.

Chief Steve Wrightson said the Rescue 31 SUV not only gets to patients faster and is cheaper to operate and maintain, it also extends the life of the fire engines. Wrightson's station is the only one in Clark County that uses an SUV for all medical emergencies, which make up about 65 percent of the district's calls.

Typically, stations send a fire engine to medical emergencies to keep equipment in one place.

Rescue 31 has been in service for about a year, during which the district studied response times for each of its emergency vehicles. Officials looked at how fast each vehicle could get to different points in their service area. Data show the SUV is at least 17 percent quicker than an engine and gets to medical calls two to three minutes faster.

District 3 covers nearly 80 square miles in rural Clark County. The SUV handles the country roads better and has a shorter stopping distance than an engine. Equipped with four-wheel drive, it can get to patients just about anywhere, even the tricky hills and winding roads characteristic of Hockinson.

"It really proved itself," Wrightson said.

Well-stocked

Rescue 31 looks and sounds like an emergency vehicle — it's outfitted with emergency lights, sirens and reflective labeling. The SUV can't put out fires, extricate people who are trapped in a vehicle, clean up hazardous materials or perform technical rescues, but it's stocked with all the life support supplies needed to treat a patient in a medical emergency. It cannot, however, transport a patient to the hospital.

"You don't always have to have all your tools, but you have to have your critical tools," Wrightson said.

Although the SUV is rated at 17 miles per gallon, he said it gets about 10 to 11 miles per gallon due to the way they drive it. A fire engine, however, gets just five to seven miles per gallon and runs on diesel fuel. By using the SUV, the station not only saves $1,235 a year in fuel costs, it also saves on maintenance and future replacement costs.

In its first year in operation, the SUV saved the engine 3,557 miles of use. Fire District 3's main station went from servicing its engines twice a year to once a year -- saving another $1,256. An engine costs about $450,000 to replace, whereas the SUV costs $52,223.

Makes sense for area

Before purchasing the SUV, the district took a look at Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue in Tigard, Ore., which uses an SUV and toyed with the idea of using a motorcycle. Wrightson said a motorcycle isn't as safe, can't carry much equipment and wouldn't be as useful in the county as it is in big cities such as Miami and Los Angeles where it could respond to minor medical emergencies in high traffic. An SUV just makes a lot of sense, he said.

"Especially out here where it's rural. Driveways are skinny and long and tight," volunteer firefighter Andrew Wolf said.

Being a smaller vehicle, the SUV can park closer to the emergency and get to places that an engine can't. When crews are forced to park an engine at the top of a driveway, firefighters have to then run the rest of the way to the emergency while carrying equipment and medical supplies.

With two engines in the station and three other supporting stations in the area, Wrightson feels confident that the district can deal with simultaneous calls. He sends two to four people on a medical call, which leaves other firefighters available at the station. The 24-hour station has 22 paid crew members and 30 volunteer firefighters.

Revenue in the district dropped when house values decreased by about 32 percent, Wrightson said. The station tries to conserve money wherever possible and by saving the station $3,736 in its first year, the Rescue 31 SUV fits the bill.

Patty Hastings: 360-735-4513; http://twitter.com/col_cops;patty.hastings@columbian.com.