When it comes to fighting fires, every second counts. In order to improve response times, some Washington County, Tenn., volunteer fire departments are getting a little help from their friends — the Washington County-Johnson City EMS.
According to Dan Wheeley, NREMT-P, MBA, chief/executive director of the Washington County-Johnson City EMS, it is policy for one of the EMS rescue units to respond to all structure fires and alarms that occur in the area. However, a few years ago, the agency spoke to the fire association about the benefit of having rescue techs train to operate fire pumps at the scene so firefighters could concentrate on battling the blaze. At that time, it trained all rescue techs in pump operations and offered an annual refresher course to keep them up to speed on the process.
That program worked out well, and it wasn’t long before Limestone Fire approached Wheeley about having his EMS personnel responding in their engine since they were going to the fire anyway.
“We felt if we added some medical equipment to the engine so that we could still perform our primary role as EMS, then it made sense for us to respond in the fire engine,” Wheeley said. “Many times, the volunteers were driving past the fire to go to the station to get to the engine (so) if they knew the engine was in route; they could respond directly to the scene, thereby reducing response times.”
Trusting the techs
Limestone Volunteer Fire Department Chief Tim Jaynes said the partnership was a natural solution to what had become a difficult problem. In recent years, Limestone has evolved from a small, one street town area full of family farms to more of a bedroom community. As businesses began to spread out and subdivisions started to claim the farmland, it became a concern. The volunteer firefighters were farther away, which increased response times and response availability.
“We approached EMS about the possibility of having the rescue techs, who were already housed in our station on a rescue truck, respond in an engine to the fire incident,” Jaynes said. “Many of the techs were already fire trained and associated with a fire department so we trusted their abilities to operate the engine on scene.”
Naturally, the change caused some mixed feelings within the EMS at first. Some staff members thought they would be expected to fight fires that they were not trained to fight, while others were excited at the prospect of being able to do more at the scene and serve their community at a higher level.
“Since then, (the response) has been very positive,” Wheeley said, noting the program has generated more interest from current rescue techs as well as outside applicants.
Others sign on
The new partnership began in January 2018, and it took about a month to get the personnel who were assigned to the station trained and checked off on emergency vehicle operations for the fire engine. They developed a driver program in conjunction with an instructor from the state, and they trained alternates to cover when the primary personnel were off. The program became so successful that in January 2019, they began doing the same program at the Nolichucky Volunteer Fire Department. By December of that year, the Gray Volunteer Fire Department signed on as well.
“Each went through the same process,” Wheeley said. “We have since sent the rescue techs assigned to these stations through a rookie school with the fire departments in order to give them a better understanding of what is happening on the ground and enable them to better integrate into the fire operations.”
Of course, it was important that agencies did not lose sight of the primary responsibility going into the program. As part of the interlocal agreement, agencies established guidelines to address medical and fire operations to ensure if a medical emergency arises, the fire officer on scene will immediately assume pump duties so the EMS personnel can attend to the person in need.
“Our engine is equipped with medical supplies to fulfill that need,” Jaynes said. “We had one incident recently with three burn victims. The victims had escaped the structure and were attended by first arriving firefighters. When the engine arrived, the rescue tech treated and began patient care allowing the firefighters to (do their job.) The engine arrived at the same time as the ambulance, which is a big plus because, in the past, the ambulance and rescue truck could be seven or more minutes ahead of the engine. This quick response made a huge impact on the ability to attack the fire quicker without compromising the ability to provide patient care by the rescue tech.”
In addition to improved response times, Wheeley and Jaynes said the program has also improved the working relationships between departments and created a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars. Across the nation, volunteer fire departments face similar issues with staffing, and if possible, communities should look at their resources to cultivate creative solutions that meet their needs.
Although it is challenging to work through the turf issues, command and control issues, if leaders consider things from the patient or victim’s perspective, they will put those needs ahead of everything else. “A patient or a victim of a fire doesn’t care whose uniform you are wearing or whose truck you show up in, as long as you are competent, compassionate and able to provide them the care that they need. If we focus on that, everything else can be worked out.”