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Response times improving as Whiteville Fire begins medical first responder responsibilities

By Allen Turner, The News Reporter

More than four and a half months after Columbus County commissioners on March 19 approved a request to allow the Whiteville Fire Department (WFD) to be a first responder to medical emergencies in the city, response times have improved after WFD began being dispatched on Aug. 6, 140 days after commissioners initially gave the go-ahead.

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The paperwork snafu eventually was cleared up, however, paving the way for the fire department to start being dispatched for medical emergencies in the city limits.

Fire Chief David Yergeau said that in the first 22 days the department had been dispatched, firefighters got 33 calls for medical emergencies, an average of 1.5 per day.  

“That’s about what I was expecting,” Yergeau said Tuesday. “I was figuring on about two a day. There are going to be periods when we have no calls and other periods when we have more. It’s just like fire calls. You never know when they are going to happen.”

Whiteville Rescue Unit, which provides paramedic and heavy rescue services to the city and surrounding rural areas, is busy. The unit staffs two paramedic ambulances during the day and one at nights and on the weekends. It’s not unusual for WRU to be dispatched to two or more concurrent calls.

Whiteville Rescue Unit Chief Shannon Strickland said Wednesday that the rescue unit welcomes the addition of the fire department as a first responder. “Sometimes we really get slammed with calls,” he said, “or we might be tied up out at the hospital, and the fact that the fire department can now be a first responder means that the people can get help quicker than they would otherwise, and that’s what’s important.” 

The fire department doesn’t operate ambulances but sends fire trucks staffed with firefighters cross-trained as certified North Carolina medical responders.  Medical responders provide basic life support skills, such as CPR, oxygen therapy, splinting and hemorrhage control. 

The fire department is now dispatched with Whiteville Rescue paramedics to all car wrecks with injuries in the city, and most recently, to calls classified by the 911 Center as true medical emergencies, such as difficulty breathing, gunshots or severe falls, for example.

In many cases, due to proximity or WRU ambulances being tied up on other calls, the fire department arrives sooner than the rescue unit, where minutes can be critical in a medical emergency. 

“In some cases we’re getting to a call a little sooner than the rescue unit,” Yergeau said. “and other times, we arrive at about the same time, but sometimes we do get there first. When we and the rescue unit arrive at the same time, we just help them with the patient care and that’s the important thing, patient care. But now we are able to start that care sooner than it would happen if the rescue unit is tied up on another call.”

Yergeau said his department members are glad to be able to provide the service, but that the public still needs to be educated about what’s taking place. “They’re not used to seeing a fire truck pull up for a medical emergency,” he said. “When people find out what’s going on, a lot of them seem to be really tickled about it, and the rescue squad loves it because when they get really busy they know that patient is going to get care before they can get there instead of the patient sitting there and repeatedly calling and asking ‘When’s somebody going get here?’ Now that ‘somebody’ is going to get there in a hurry.”

Since the fire department started being dispatched for medical emergencies, the average response time has been 4.5 minutes, Yergeau said. 

Some kinks still are being worked out, which Yergeau believes are slowing dispatch times.

“We’re already providing faster responses, and the response times will only improve as we work out those kinks.” 

While the concept of a fire department providing medical first response services is new to Whiteville, it’s not new in the area, Yergeau said. “Look at Wilmington,” he said. “They’ve been doing it there for years. Doing this provides better service for the citizens and, after all, the citizens are our customer base. If they’re paying for the service, they should be getting it, and they’re getting faster service now.”

Stuart Rogers