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Fire chief explains why firetrucks respond to EMS calls so often

80 percent of calls to SAFD are medical, ambulances need help

SAN ANTONIO – In matters of life and death, timing is everything. Eighty percent of calls to the San Antonio Fire Department are medical, on par with the rest of the nation.

Like other big cities, San Antonio has to get creative when responding to all those calls. The fire chief said the city's ambulances need help keeping response times low. 

San Antonians calling 911 may expect an ambulance, but a lot of times, they get a firetruck first.

"If we didn't send those firetrucks on those calls, the level of care would not be as good, because those firefighters get there that have a paramedic on board. They're able to intervene in an medical emergency immediately," San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said.

Hood said the key is quick care and in many cases, firetrucks are closest.

"If you look at Phoenix or LA or San Diego, New York City, they send firetrucks on medical calls," he said.

In many cities, budgets are strapped and buying more ambulances and staffing them is out of the question, so firetrucks have started meeting the need. It's called fire-based emergency medical services.

Every single firetruck in San Antonio contains advanced life support equipment, and even though only about 50 percent of the trucks have advanced life care paramedics on board, every single firefighter is an emergency medical technician.

"We have advanced airway devices. We have your (automated external defibrillators). We can shock to get somebody in cardiac arrest back into a regular workable rhythm. We're able to establish an IV, give them fluids. We have oxygen," Fire Capt. Mark Trevino said.

They're also equipped with medication for diabetes, cardiac issues and drug overdoses. Plus, firetrucks travel with four people, compared to two in an ambulance. What a firetruck can't do is get people to the hospital.

"But we're going to get there. We can intubate, start an IV, defibrillate, do all of the medical interventions that paramedics on an ambulance are going to do," Hood said.

When dispatchers get a 911 call, they can see which emergency crew is closest and decide which one to send.

If a crew gets there and realizes no one needs to be taken to the hospital by ambulance, the city offers taxi vouchers. When approved, they're free rides to the emergency room in a cab, so patients don't tie up an ambulance with a minor injury. That voucher program has been going on for about five years now.

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