Md. ambulance co. seeks to shorten 911 response times

The recommendation for dispatching the closest unit could mean a radical change away from a system that historically has divided the county up into fire boxes

The Aegis

HARTFORD COUNTY, Md. — Harford County emergency officials discussing how they can reduce ambulance and fire response times when people dial 911 have come up with a dispatch method designed to get the nearest available equipment to the scene.

Russell Strickland, director of the county's Department of Emergency Services, said he has presented recommendations to leaders of local fire and ambulance companies that call for dispatching equipment from volunteer company that is closest to an emergency and for reducing the time a caller is on with a 911 operator, using what he called the "three questions" method.

The recommendation for dispatching the closest unit could mean a radical change away from a system that historically has divided the county up into fire boxes – or territories – covered by each fire company, with the home company getting first call for anything in its territory.

Strickland discussed the changes being considered during the most recent meeting of the county's Public Safety Commission held Dec. 19 at the Darlington Fire Company. He said he presented the recommendations to the Chief Officers Liaison Committee of the Harford County Volunteer Fire & EMS Association.

"We want to try and lower the time it takes us to say, 'Hello,' and get the information and get the call on the street," Strickland explained regarding his recommendations to speed up the initial dispatch.

"That, theoretically, could take no more than 30 seconds, if on a good day," he said.

Strickland said members of the chief officers group – essentially to the top fire line officers in each independent fire company – endorsed both recommendations.

Regarding dispatching the closest unit to a call, Strickland said dispatchers cannot yet use AVL technology – automatic vehicle locator – and that it could be next fall "before we can do that with our current technology."

"But they will be able to, once they put the call out, look at the map, and then see if there is by chance, a vehicle, an ambulance, a medic unit anywhere near the call and then go ahead and put them on the call as a first responder unit," he said.

Tony Bennett, chairman of the public safety commission, explained later the "three questions" method, which is in use, involves a 911 operator answering the call, the first question, asking the caller what the emergency is and where the caller is.

The basic information is then sent to a dispatcher via computer, while the operator remains on the line with the caller to gather more detailed information about the emergency.

Meanwhile, the dispatcher relays the initial information to a fire or EMS unit, and that first unit is on the road within 30 seconds to a minute and can receive updates while in transit, Bennett said.

The response time issue has come to the forefront in recent years, as the county's population has grown and spread out and fewer men and women are joining what had once been an all-volunteer fire and ambulance service.

The need to have qualified EMS personnel available to promptly handle emergency medical calls, regardless of the location, has been discussed in the past; however, there was no consensus among fire service leaders and county emergency officials – who are responsible for taking and dispatching the calls – how best to improve the existing system.

The county has a hybrid paid ambulance service that in theory supplements the volunteer ambulance crews. The paid service is funded through county government tax revenue and insurance reimbursements, but the service has run into past financial difficulties and there has been no recent move to expand it.

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