New alerting system to speed up Charleston County fire-EMS dispatch

Firefighters and EMS workers likely will be dispatched up to 30 seconds faster with a new $3.4 million station alerting system the county has agreed to purchase.

That may not sound like much of a time savings, but it can make a big difference in an emergency, said John Tippett, deputy chief of operations for the Charleston Fire Department. Arrive 30 seconds too late and a person in cardiac arrest can suffer irreversible brain damage, he said.

The system will make response times 15 to 30 seconds faster by automating some of the steps employees who answer 911 calls now must do manually to dispatch fire, EMS and rescue services, said Jim Lake, director of Charleston County’s Consolidated Dispatch Center. It also would improve the working conditions and health of emergency workers by targeting dispatches to the specific stations that will respond to them, instead of putting out all calls on a radio system, he said. Now, dispatches for all of the county’s fire stations are announced over a radio system.

Tippett said that with so much information constantly coming over the air waves, “You can get immune to the radio traffic and miss things.” He also said that fire and EMS workers get an “adrenaline rush” when they hear about emergencies over the radio. Long-term exposure to that kind of stress can wear a body down, he said.

With the new alerting system, first-responders would hear only about emergencies to which they should respond.

In those cases, the adrenaline rush would help them to better do their jobs.

Charleston County Council on Tuesday approved the purchase of the Purvis Station Alerting system with a 6-3 vote. Members who voted in favor of the plan said it was important to improve the safety of both residents and first-responders, and that it was essential to help the county’s consolidated dispatch system work more efficiently. Opponents questioned whether the particular system the county has selected is the best system to meet local needs, and whether the county’s cities and towns that will benefit from it should share in its cost.

Council chairman Teddie Pryor said he supports the purchase. “When it comes to public safety, what kind of price are you going to put on someone’s life,” he said.

Charleston County in 2009 started its Consolidated Dispatch Center, which handles all of the county’s 911 calls except those from the Town of Folly Beach. Town Council opted out of the system in 2011, citing dispatchers’ lack of familiarity with the area.

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