Fire department SUVs: Road tested

Staff say they felt they got nimble response in experiment, but data will be reviewed

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian breaking news reporter

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photoThursday was the last day of a three-month experiment by the Vancouver Fire Department, in which it used two sport-utility vehicles to respond to less-serious medical calls. A comprehensive report will be finished by mid-August to determine if the pilot project succeeded in its goal: allowing fire engines to respond faster when high-priority medical calls come in.

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photoCaptain David Sturbelle, of the Vancouver Fire Department, performs routine maintenance on the department's Fire Responder SUV. The SUV finished it's last day in the test program on Thursday. Over the next two months, the data collected during the test will be analyzed, and it will be decided if the program was successful.

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For the past three months, when Vancouver residents called 911 with a less-serious medical problem, they may have been met with a sport-utility vehicle that had medical equipment stowed in the trunk.

Those SUVs that rolled up to these calls were part of a pilot project the Vancouver Fire Department launched in April to improve response times for high-priority medical calls. As the pilot program ended on Thursday, Fire Chief Joe Molina said he's optimistic that the test was a success and that he's excited to pore over the data.

"I feel that SUVs are going to be part of our future in some way," Molina said.

Prior to the pilot, the fire agency sent its 35-foot engines to all medical calls that dispatchers ranked as being Priority 1 through Priority 4. The department stopped responding to the least-serious calls (ranked as priority 5 or 6) in 2008, with dispatchers sending only ambulances owned by private company AMR.

The pilot added two SUVs -- one Chevy Tahoe and one Ford Expedition -- to the fleet of VFD response vehicles. Those vehicles, each staffed by two paramedics, responded to calls deemed Priority 3 or Priority 4 to free up the engines for the higher-priority calls. The goal was to reduce the agency's response time to those high-priority medical calls.

Another added benefit, Molina said, is that the agency should save money on fuel and maintenance costs. The department spends $1.34 a mile to drive an SUV. It costs $7.47 a mile for an engine.

While all the numbers aren't in yet, Molina says that some of the initial data make the decision to shift to this model of response seem logical. Between April and June, the two roving SUVs responded to 30 percent of the calls received while the SUVs were in service -- Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

"They definitely made a huge impact. The number of calls (the SUVs) ran that didn't require an apparatus made (the engines) more available," Molina said.

The pilot's response model does mean a longer wait for those lower-priority calls, even if an engine is closer.

"The key thing is that they're not as time-critical," said EMS officer Jay Getsfrid, who oversaw the project. The department consulted with a doctor to make sure that someone who ended up being sicker than the priority classification indicated wasn't left waiting for medical attention.

"We couldn't do (the pilot) with a negative impact on patients," Getsfrid said. "We didn't see any of those red flags, but to be sure, we'll go over the numbers with a fine-tooth comb."

The agency doesn't yet know if response time improved. Now that the project is over, data analysts will wade through the numbers and flag outliers.

Molina said that there are some things they learned quickly from the pilot. One kink the fire department will have to address is having better coordination with AMR, which also has ambulances scattered about the city.

The two SUVs move around the 91 square miles of the city during the 10-hour shift, reacting to where the agency's resources are being dispersed. For example, if one SUV is busy on a call in the north part of the city, the second SUV will start roaming the southern region.

"We're trying to position ourselves to the next call (though) we don't know where it's going to be," said Capt. Bob Carroll, who sat in the passenger seat of the SUV called Rescue One on Thursday.

They couldn't easily coordinate with AMR, however, because of some technical issues.

"We did it on the fly with radios, which is better than not doing anything," Molina said. "Crews would talk to each other on the radio, saying, 'Where are you? Where are you?'"

Carroll, who was assigned to Rescue One for the first month of the pilot, said that using the SUVs appeared to be more efficient.

"(The Engines) can't be stuck on low-priority calls," he said. "This lets them get to real medical emergencies a lot quicker that in the past … lower-level calls should have lower-level response" and vice versa, he said.

Molina said that the next step may include a second round of the pilot project in the fall, when the agency may re-frame its questions or adjusting its response model after analyzing the data.

"We want to send the right tool to the right call in the right time frame," Getsfrid said. "We just asked: What if we had a different tool?"

Molina will update the Vancouver City Council on the project during a 4 p.m. workshop Monday at City Hall. The public is welcome to attend, but there's no public comment period during council workshops. An in-depth report will be presented to the council by mid-August, Molina said.


Emily Gillespie:http://twitter.com/col_cops; emily.gillespie@columbian.com.