In Our View: Medical Relief in an SUV

Vancouver Fire Department encouraged by early results of pilot program

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Kudos to the leaders and rank-and-file heroes of the Vancouver Fire Department for thinking outside the box and implementing a pilot program that dispatches SUVs — in place of fire engines — to lower-priority emergency medical calls. The program has been in effect only one month, and Vancouver Fire Chief Joe Molina wrote in a recent report that the department still needs to "analyze the larger data set from the three-month trial period" before drawing conclusions.But early statistics are encouraging. As Stephanie Rice reported in a Tuesday Columbian story, the two SUVs are hitting response-time goals 94 percent of the time, an improvement over the previous 78 percent.

This is great news for the No. 1 priority of any fire department: responding to emergency calls as expeditiously as possible. More specifically, it's a meaningful step forward in answering the community's medical-distress calls, which typically account for about three-fourths of the 23,000 calls the VFD receives annually. When 911 is called for a medical emergency, the caller's chief concern is clear: How quickly can you get here?

But the benefits of this pilot program, at least as indicated by preliminary statistics, transcend the medical-response arena. Fire-response capabilities are improved because, for every SUV that is out answering a medical call, a fire engine remains at the station, better prepared and positioned to respond to fire calls.

Another beneficiary is the taxpayer, who sees the VFD getting a bigger bang for the buck. It costs $1.34 a mile to run each of the department's SUVs, compared with the average $7.47 a mile for each fire engine.

Praise also is due members of the Citizen Resource Team, which devoted six months of diligent work to analyzing EMS operations and then made several recommendations such as the SUV pilot program. We also like the way Molina and other VFD leaders heeded the team's advice and worked with union leaders and command staff to find ways to make this change happen. Their utilitarian attitude was shown by the fact that they didn't need to buy new SUVs to get the pilot program started. With a few modifications to one of the units, SUVs already assigned to Deputy Fire Chief Dan Olson and Operations Chief Steve Eldred were converted to emergency-response use. By sharing other department vehicles, and using personal vehicles to drive to and from work, the expanded use of the SUVs — a 2013 Chevy Tahoe and a 2010 Ford Expedition — was made possible.

The SUVs are answering many of the priority 3 and 4 calls, which involve cases that are not life-threatening, while fire engines still respond to priority 1 and 2 calls, the more urgent cases such as those involving cardiac arrest.

Many more calls and many more hours of emergency response are needed before any firm conclusions can be drawn. But it's good to see VFD leaders and first responders — working in conjunction with local AMR ambulance crews — taking the innovative approach and looking for ways to extract maximum benefits out of limited resources.