Summerville’s public safety departments intend to change how they handle emergency medical calls in an attempt to save money while still providing service.
Public Safety Director Bruce Owens and Fire Chief Marc Melfi, along with Dorchester County EMS Director Doug Warren, spoke to council’s public safety committee Wednesday.
After hearing the plan, the committee decided the staff members should handle any changes amongst themselves, so long as safety isn’t compromised.
“We’re just trying to do things smarter and better,” Owens said afterward.
Currently, when someone in town calls 911, a Summerville police dispatcher answers the call, gathers pertinent information, then, if it’s a medical call, transfers the call to the appropriate county EMS dispatch while simultaneously dispatching Summerville fire.
Because Summerville dispatch doesn’t control EMS, the operators don’t know where the ambulances are at any given time, so they dispatch fire to ensure help arrives promptly.
If Dorchester County EMS is close by, Dorchester dispatch will cancel the Summerville fire response.
The public safety departments want to change the protocol so that Summerville dispatchers will transfer a call immediately upon realizing it’s a medical call, then listen in on the conversation with Dorchester dispatch to see if it’s necessary to send the fire department.
This shouldn’t add much time to response times, they said, but would prevent firefighters from unnecessarily responding.
In 2009-2010, Dorchester EMS cancelled the fire response 17 percent of the time, and in 2010-2011 it cancelled the response 24 percent of the time, Melfi said.
For the past four months, after Melfi asked EMS to be especially conscientious about cancellations because of rising gas prices, Dorchester EMS cancelled the fire response 31 percent of the time, he said.
Berkeley and Charleston counties don’t cancel responses because their stations are farther away from Summerville.
Cancellations still cost the town money, because often the fire truck has already left the station by the time the cancellation call arrives, Melfi said.
In addition, the firefighters are woken up and they must complete a fire report, even for calls to which they don’t respond, he said.
It’s difficult to quantify exactly how much the cancelled responses cost the town, he said.
If a call is cancelled but the fire truck is already three-quarters of the way there, it will continue responding, he said.
Warren said there are certain calls that the fire department will always respond to, including car accidents, strokes and chest pain.
Dorchester dispatchers have certain questions they ask of each caller, which helps them know with a great deal of accuracy whether they’ll need fire assistance, he said.
Outside town, for example, the volunteer fire departments are dispatched for only about a third of the EMS calls, he said.
Warren said he hopes that the new protocol will help with some of the frustration callers feel when they have to answer questions from Summerville dispatch then repeat much of the information and more to Dorchester dispatch.
He’s concerned about the people who get so frustrated they decide to drive to the hospital instead, which isn’t the best response for stroke and heart attack patients.
People will get frustrated regardless, Owens said.
Dorchester EMS has eight ambulances from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and seven ambulances from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m., in addition to a quick response vehicle in St. George and a shift supervisor, who could be anywhere in the county.