Commission considers fire department medical capabilities
LaGRANGE – The Troup County Board of Commissioners is looking at an increased need for medically-trained firefighters and medically-equipped trucks after fire officials discussed the issue at a work session Friday.
The Troup County Fire Department only responded to about 343 actual fires last year, but it responded to 2,085 calls for medical assistance. The fire department takes medical calls because often they are able to reach callers and provide assistance quicker than ambulances due to the locations of the fire stations around the county.
“The general public is depending on some areas of expertise that the fire department has rather than them going to the emergency room or the doctor,” said Commissioner Ellis Cadenhead. “… I think we need to look at it from the standpoint of what it is costing the general public for that service.”
Due to the high volume of medical calls, that the department currently handles, the majority of fire department employees are emergency medical technicians who have been trained to be firefighters, where a few decades ago, the opposite would have been true.
“We have found out that it is easier to hire an EMT and train them to be a firefighter than it is to hire a firefighter and train them to be an EMT,” said County Manager Tod Tentler.
The commissioners and Fire Chief Dennis Knight discussed the cost of the fire department responding to non-emergency calls, and the possibility of further training for 911 operators that would help operators determine if a situation is non-life threatening and would only require an ambulance response – possibly even without sirens and lights – which could prove to be a safer and more cost-effective response.
“When we send someone on a medical call, most of the time we have to take a fire truck,” said Tentler. “It is very expensive. It eats a lot of gas, takes our resources from where they need to be to another location if there is a fire. … Obviously, if someone is in need we want to be there for them, but I’ve talked to Dennis (Knight) about if there is the possibility of a fee we can charge if the incident is not an emergency.”
The city of LaGrange also has fire trucks respond to its medical emergencies, but due to the compactness of the city, it doesn’t cost as much in terms of fuel and other resources to respond to those emergencies. Simply leaving medical responses to the ambulances is not an option though, when a matter of minutes can be the difference between life and death for callers. Ambulances only deploy from two locations in the county, but the fire stations provide far better response times due to their locations, especially further out into the county, and even in their caution to not stretch the fire department too thin, the commissioners made a point to remember that the department is there to serve the residents.
“The thing we have to be cautious about here is we are here to serve the citizens,” said Commissioner Richard English. “… I get calls from all over the county, and the most complaints is why are they so slow getting there. … The fire department doesn’t try to make judgements when they get a call that someone is sick, ill, whatever… they just go and make sure that the citizens are well taken care of, and that’s a good thing.”
In fact, the department is currently working on how to better serve residents requiring medical response through better training for its employees and volunteers and greater capabilities for the trucks, but that training comes with an added cost for the department. Knight says he hopes to keep that cost within the department’s allotted budget.
“Since medical rescue is our largest category, we are developing plans to increase our level of service in the medical category,” said Knight. “We would like to increase the capability on our medical first responder trucks. Seven of our trucks are licensed by the state as medical first responder trucks, and they are staffed with at least one (Emergency Medical Technician) on medical calls. What we would like to do is increase the capabilities of those trucks, and we would do this as staffing and budget allows. We would like to start providing IV therapy and have the capability of administering albuterol and Narcan, epinephrine and (Dextrose) 50. This would cost probably $2,000 to $4,000 per year per truck.”
Albuterol is used to relax the muscles in the airways and increase the air flow to the lungs following a bronchospasm. Narcan is used to treat a narcotic overdose in emergency situations. Epinephrine is used to treat severe asthma attacks or allergic reactions. Dextrose 50 is used to treat hypoglycemia – which may be related to diabetes – and manage comas of unknown origin. The department would most likely start by adding the new capabilities to one truck, and then adding the capabilities to other trucks as staffing and budget allows. The fire trucks are not currently equipped to handle emergencies requiring medicines like those requiring Narcan, and firefighters would need to be trained on how to properly administer the drugs if approved.
“Medical is most of what we do, so we want to do it better,” said Knight. “Provide a better service to the community, and we’ll be asking (the county commission) to consider those upgrades in the near future.”
Currently, 88 percent of the Troup County Fire Department’s 2017 budget is for personnel, and the department hopes to continue providing advanced training for those personnel to continue to improve quality of service.
“Our greatest asset is our people,” said Knight. “It doesn’t matter how many nice firetrucks we have, how many nice fire stations, or how many pages are in our standard operating procedures, or how well those were written. If we don’t have the people, we can’t do our job. So, our people are our greatest asset, and we’ve got 57 full-time and about 42 volunteer firefighters. … They are also our greatest – our most expensive asset.”
Even with the department’s emphasis on its employees, it still has significantly fewer firefighters at each station than the state Insurance Service Office recommends due to budget constraints. The Troup County Fire Department still earned a Class 5 ISO rating thanks to equipment – like firetrucks and tanker trucks – purchased using SPLOST funds, which cannot be used for personnel. Knight expressed a desire to continue to improve insurance ratings in the future with the help of the commission.
The Troup County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to meet again this morning at 9 a.m. at 100 Ridley Ave.
Reach Alicia B. Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 706-884-7311, Ext. 2154.