Last Updated: Apr 27th, 2015 - 11:04:56

Colonial Heights fire, EMS crews push to improve times
By James Peacemaker Jr., Managing Editor
Jul 25, 2014, 13:44

JAMES PEACEMAKER JR./HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT Deputy Chief David Salot shows off a timer in the fire house that displays how long it is taking to get out of the door.
COLONIAL HEIGHTS — In an emergency, seconds matter.

With a heart attack, seconds can mean loss of heart muscle. With a stroke, it is a brain being deprived of oxygen. In a fire, it could mean dying of smoke inhalation or the loss of a home.

And the Colonial Heights Fire and EMS Department has been working to shave off every second they can from the time it takes to respond.

Deputy Fire Chief David Salot said the department has seen a big drop in response times, but it hasn’t just been one change to get there. It involved an across-the-board look at procedures and a bit of a culture change within the department.

An example of that is a bright red digital timer that sits in the firehouse, showing how long it is taking to get out the door.

“They can kinda see it’s like wow, time is moving fast. It helps keep a little umph in their step.” Salot said.

Another big step was that the department started an internal quality control process in which anything over a 9 minute response for priority 1 calls triggers a review process to see what was done wrong or what could have been done better.

“We’ll listen to radio tapes. We’ll try and see what errors could have been in-house, how long it took to get out the door, those types of things,” Salot said.

The main thing they focus on is the time it takes from when the buzzer goes off for a call to the time out of the door. The drive time is less in their control.

And the effort has paid off in a big way.

The November 2012 average response time for fire calls was 6 minutes and 35 seconds. The 9 minute goal was met 87.2 percent of the time. On the EMS side in November 2012, there was a 6 minute and 10 second response time. That met their goal 87.5 percent of the time.

A year later, in November 2013, the fire response time and the EMS response time were down to 5 minutes and 6 seconds. They met the response for fire 97.8 percent of the time and for EMS 98 percent of the time.

“That was pretty drastic,” Salot said.

Another step they have taken is called peak load staffing, which makes more ambulances available during certain times.

They did a statistical analysis to see when the most calls were coming in.

During the daytime, there are a lot more calls, so they increased part time staffing from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. This makes it so that if they are making a trip to the hospital that they will have backup if another call comes in.

They increased the number of part-time employees from three to eight.

During peak load times, they try to have 13 personnel working, including a battalion chief.

They also changed some dispatching procedures that gets the information out quicker, according to Deputy Fire Marshal Joe Boisseau.

They are now training for “emergency medical dispatching.”

“Now the dispatchers can actually try to gather some information, realize that this is a priority call, and can help speed up the process,” Boisseau said.

This allows for one dispatcher to gather information over the phone while another is dispatching response crews to where they need to go.

“The dispatcher can now give the caller some pre-arrival instructions, provide them CPR, how to maintain bleeding, how to get the medications together,” Boisseau said.

All of this can shave precious seconds off of the time it takes to get the proper medical care.

“It’s a team effort on their end too,” Salot said.

In the future, they will look for other ways to improve the dispatch side.

“From the time that 911 rings to getting that call out, maybe there are some adjustments we will want to make over time,” Salot said.

Boisseau said that if there is a medical emergency, it is important to call them rather than trying to take themselves to the hospital. Minutes or even seconds can make a big difference in serious problems.

“We can do lots of things in the back of the ambulance well in advance of arriving in the emergency room,” Boisseau said.

They do the same procedure for many serious emergencies as they would in the hospital.

“It’s a mobile emergency room,” Solat said.

Looking to the future

Most of the improvements in response time have been due to extra efforts by firefighters, not in technology.

“There wasn’t any big expenses that had to be put in,” Salot said.

But technology is becoming increasingly important as a part of the job.

Some of the firefighters have the availability of using an active 911 system which sends out information as soon as the dispatchers can put the information into the system.

“They are getting some of the stuff a lot faster to their cell phones,” Boisseau said.

It gives basic information and can also make use of GPS to lead them right to the scene, from wherever they are in the city. It can be very helpful in mutual aid situations where they fill in for surrounding localities.

The Fire and EMS Department uses a tool called Opticom that allows them to take over traffic lights. Each vehicle has an coded emitter that changes the traffic signals to allow the emergency responders to get a green light and all others a red light.

Over the years they have added those to every traffic signal in Colonial Heights.

“Any new traffic signal in the city … they have to install the emitter,” Boisseau said.

There are still technological advances that they have their eye on that could further reduce response times.

For example, Richmond has a system called IP alerting, which uses a robotic voice to send out information quickly, often in less than 20 seconds.

“The dispatcher can send the call without having to verbally talk on the radio, because they could still be getting information. … Richmond has nicknamed their voice ‘Samantha,’” Salot said.

The system gets the crews moving, and dispatchers can then update fire and EMS while they are on the road.

“We’re salivating to get it some day,” Salot said.

With an eye toward the future, Boisseau said they are working to come up with a plan for possible changes when work begins on the roundabout construction set to be completed in the next few years. The roundabout will replace the current Temple Avenue/Interstate 95 interchange.

The work could create traffic problems for more than a year.

“We are already thinking well ahead of what happens when construction starts,” Boisseau said.

The fire department has also experimented with different techniques to improve response times.

One of the volunteers who is also a doctor used a first response SUV with advanced life support equipment on board to greatly improve response times during a limited time. He would rove in high-volume areas such as near the mall, one of the areas that takes longer to get to. He would shift to other areas if other crews were responding to calls.

He arrived on scene ahead of ambulances to begin treatment.

He did a national presentation on the results and had them published. They showed improved response times but it would take more personnel for implementation.

Insurance rating

Along with improvements in response times, the Fire and EMS Department’s work could also lower insurance premiums for homeowners and businesses.

The Insurance Service Office, an international organization that makes detailed assessments of fire departments’ ability to respond to fires, lowered the city’s rating from a 5 to a 4.

The new rating went into effect Feb. 1.

The rating is often used by insurance companies as one component that determines premiums for homeowners and businesses.

They examine every aspect of the organization from staffing, procedures, equipment and infrastructure such as hydrants and water lines.

A number from 1 to 10 is assigned to a community, with 1 being the best and 10 being the worst. There are only 57 departments in the nation that are class 1.

“They came in and went extensively over our organization and they collect that data and it takes a couple of months to crunch that together,” said Fire Chief A.G. Moore at a November City Council.

Moore said changes in the communications center have improved how calls and alarms are handled.  They look at the number and types of vehicles and the staffing to go with it.

They look at stored water, water lines and hydrants.

Colonial Heights went to 5 in 1997 and now are a 4. Moore said the department, with the city’s support, is moving in the direction they want to go.

“We aren’t really far from a 3,” Moore said. “I really think the next time we get them in here, we can move to a 3, and I challenge my people that that’s what we are going to do.”

City Manager Tom Mattis noted that 3 is about as good a city of this size can get. Only a very small percentage of fire departments in the nation achieve a 1 or 2.

Of the 48,960 communities nationwide, 2,953 have a rating better than 4, and 40,988 have ratings worse than 4.

The ISO evaluation is broken up into three parts: receiving and handling fire alarms, which accounts for 10 percent of the total score; the fire department, which accounts for 50 percent; and the water supply, which accounts for 40 percent.

The evaluation covers a wide range of things. For example, the fire department lost points for not having the business phone number listed under fire department in the phone book.

They lost points for using a three-story drill tower for training instead of a four-story drill tower.

They also lost points for not inspecting every commercial, industrial and institutional building twice a year, a task that would require more staff.

The fire department showed improvement with staffing levels, training, inspections and investigations. They also got points for better equipment and maintenance. The water systems also showed improvements.

ISO does a review of each locality every 6 to 8 years, Boisseau said.

“They’re actually looking at dispatch, they’re looking at fire responses, they’re looking at training, and they’re looking at the inspections and investigations,” Boisseau said.

But the Fire and EMS Department also had to rely on other city departments for some of the improvements.

The utility department made improvements along the Boulevard, Chesterfield Avenue, Battery Place, and other parts -- some out of necessity because the age of the pipes but also to improve fire response capabilities.

“The south end of the city is really old water lines,” Boisseau said.

Other parts could still benefit from improved water lines, he said.

The effort also highlights some of the work the Fire and EMS Department does beyond response.

Boisseau said they are sure to make sure all major new construction has certain standards such as water lines and fire hydrants in the right spots.

“I do all of the site plan reviews, so anytime anyone is building a building or a residential neighborhood, I’m looking at the plans,” Boisseau said.

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