The city of Charleston is limiting firetruck responses on non-life threatening medical calls, following in the footsteps of other local municipalities who've done so for several years.
Fire personnel in Charleston will now only respond to the non-life threatening 911 calls — like nausea and earaches — when Emergency Medical Service workers either request assistance or the anticipated EMS response time is longer than 10 minutes.
Fire officials say the effort will free up fire personnel for more critical calls.
"I don’t want to be on a medical call that no one could reasonably expect is life-threatening and have a cardiac arrest come out a couple of blocks away and not have a fire unit close to that call," said Charleston Fire Chief Dan Curia.
Like in some other municipalities, Charleston's previous policy was that firetrucks were dispatched for all medical calls — even though their roles were limited at the scene. Firefighters could stabilize patients until EMS arrived, but couldn't transport patients themselves.
In addition, non-emergency medical calls took up a chunk of firefighters' time. A three-year study revealed that Charleston firetrucks responded to more than 14,000 calls where the person's life was not immediately at risk.
Curia, who's nearing the end of his first year as the agency head, also said it will give his department more time to teach CPR courses, speak with students in schools and build relationships in the community.
Curia said it all supports the department's mission to save lives.
"I feel a responsibility to the community," he said. "Although there are emergencies every day — whether they’re life-threatening or not — for the emergencies that are the most serious, I want to make sure that we have the greatest chance of having a fire unit within four or five minutes of that. I feel good that we’re making the change just to manage the risk.”
In the past, Charleston noted that any policy change would have to be coordinated with St. Andrews, St. Johns and James Island fire departments with which it has reciprocal response agreements. Curia noted that the city will still respond to non-emergency medical calls outside of Charleston city limits.
"We’re not going to decrease our level of service and commitment to those partner fire departments," the chief said.
Other municipalities began the switch years ago and successfully cut costs and started providing services that were more efficient, officials said.
When Summerville firetrucks limited their medical responses to patients suffering from strokes, choking, traumatic injuries and other emergencies in 2012, Summerville Chief Ricky Waring said there was some apprehension because people thought there would be a reduction in service.
“We haven't seen any problems arisen from us making that change," Waring said. "Overall, I think we’re better serving our taxpayers when we’re responding to calls that create a life-saving situation.”
When North Charleston implemented the change in 2014, a study showed the department saved $450,000 a year. Curia said he does not know how much money Charleston could save, but thinks there will be substantial reductions in the money Charleston spends on fuel.
Goose Creek firetrucks have been limited to fires and life-threatening medical calls for years. While the city — which also operates its own EMS agency — sends fire personnel to medical calls that EMS can't get to, it doesn't send firetrucks to calls that EMS can handle.
“That's been our policy for a long time. If the medic unit can handle it, I don’t see reason to send that additional resource,"said Fire Chief Steve Chapman. "You would run the tires off of firetrucks if you tried to send them to every single EMS call."