Between a rock and a hard place

This morning, I read an article about two volunteer firefighters who have been suspended from duty. These two men didn’t get caught drinking on duty or driving while drunk. They weren’t found in compromising positions. The basic facts leading up to their suspension apparently aren’t in dispute, although the appropriateness of the suspension is. For me, after reading the article and assuming it has its facts straight, I applaud these two men and hope they are soon back on the job.

From what the article said, the two firefighters arrived at a local McDonalds and found an 18-month old having a seizure. The child was, according to the report, blue from the chest up. To the best of the firefighters’ knowledge, the closest EMT unit was 10 to 15 minutes out and the child did not have that long to wait. Calls to verify the location of the unit, as well as to another town to dispatch help, either went unanswered or brought about such vague responses that the firefighters felt they had no choice but to transport the child in their firetruck to the nearest hospital.

And that, you see, was the problem. The truck is a non-transport vehicle. So, even though they managed to get the child to the hospital for treatment, even though they gave the child O2 on the way there, they got in trouble. They violated a technicality in order to save a child’s life. How many other lives will be in danger because of longer response times as a result of the suspension of these two firefighters?

I’m not going to say what they did was right. Clearly, there were communication problems. Whether they were due to equipment, poor radio discipline, a lack of training or what, I don’t know. But that much seems to be a clusterfuck all the way around.

I will also say, as a parent, I would have wanted them to transport my child instead of waiting around for EMTs who might get there in time. Can you imagine how terrified the child’s family must have been, watching this 18-month old struggling and turning blue? Can you imagine the relief they felt when the firefighters arrived? How would you have reacted in that situation to have learned then that the EMTs were coming but no one could tell you how long it would be — or if your baby would still be alive by the time they got there?

I haven’t been in that exact situation but I have been in something similar. Years ago, my father suffered from a serious heart condition. One of the first things we did before bringing him home from the hospital after his first heart attack was find out all we could about the emergency services in the city we were living in at the time. We felt like we were in good hands and shouldn’t have anything to worry about. The nearest fire station was at most a mile away. The local ambulance service — this was before the city had EMTs — was in the next small town over, less than two miles away. All looked good.

Fast forward six months. My dad started having chest pains at the house. We called it in and then called his doctor. And thus started the comedy of errors that very well could have ended in tragedy. The lesser of the problems was the doctor had accidentally turned off his beeper, so it was almost an hour after we’d made the call before he called us back. But that, in a way, turned out to be a godsend as you will see shortly.

Anyway, three minutes after placing the call, the police officer arrived. At that time, the city rolled a patrol unit as well as fire and ambulance to an emergency call. The officer was great. He verified the call, came inside and helped get my dad comfortable and then the wait began. We waited and waited and waited some more. The officer called Dispatch to find out where the ambulance was. He called again to find out where the firetruck was. He ran out to his unit to get the portable O2 unit and at least ease that much for my father.

Twenty seven minutes after we first called in, the firetruck finally arrived. No explanation for why it had taken so long (and, at the time, the city had two other fire stations that I can think of, neither of which were more than four miles from the house). At least they were there. Not that they could do much more than the cop had.

And still we waited for the ambulance.

Thirty two minutes after we called, the ambulance finally arrived. Again, no explanation for why they had taken so long to respond. But they were there. Dad was still alive and was finally getting some treatment before being transported. All was good. Right?

Not only no, but hell no.

The ambulance, and we would later find out that the city had contracted out their ambulance runs to a company located seven to ten miles away, would only take Dad to the local hospital. It wouldn’t take him to Baylor in Dallas where his doctor practiced and where my mother worked. Why? Because it wasn’t contracted to cross county lines. Furious but still holding it all under control, my mother asked about the ambulance company that had been dispatched the previous time we had had to call for help. We were told then that it had gone out of business. Feeling like she had no other option, Mom told them to take Dad to the local hospital where he could at least be stabilized while we figured out what had to be done to get him transferred to Baylor.

And I had to stay behind to wait for the doctor to call.

Act 2 of this comedy, and I use the term loosely, began then. Mom and one of the neighbors left in the ambulance with my dad. The cop made sure I was all right and another neighbor was with me and then he left. The firetruck, however, was still there and one of the firefighters brought out his clip board to “get a little bit of information”. That’s when he asked me what the address was.


He had responded to the call, a call in which Dispatch had given him the address. He was standing on the front walk, the gold metal numbers depicting the address not three feet away and clearly seen. Being the calm and understanding person that I am, I put my fist through the sheetrock of the entrance hall. Funny how the firefighter quickly realized he had all the information he needed. Then he was back on the truck and they were gone.

This is where you realize why it was a good thing the doctor had to call back and the delay helped. Not five minutes after the fire truck left, Doc called. I explained everything I could, answered all his questions and then told him the ambulance wouldn’t take Dad to Baylor and why. Now, the doc was a feisty first generation Irishman with the good humor and quick temper you would expect. He told me not to worry. He would get Dad to Baylor posthaste. I wasn’t to go to the local hospital but come on in to Baylor. If Dad wasn’t there before I arrived, he would be there shortly.

Relieved, I told the neighbor who had been waiting for me and off we went. The drive there, including passing the ambulance that was running hot with lights and sirens, is another story. The rest that needs to be told here is that we learned after we got Dad to Baylor that the ambulance company we had been told was out of business was far from it. In fact, it was the one to take Dad to Baylor. More than that, it had been at the hospital to make the transfer not five minutes after the doctor made his calls. The neighbor who had ridden in with my mother, started making calls as soon as she got home and discovered that the fire truck had not been out on a call at the time we called for help. No explanation was ever given for why it had taken so long to arrive. Nor was there an explanation for why the ambulance took so long. What we wouldn’t know until months later, our neighbors went on a mission to change city policy after what happened. The contract with the out-of-city ambulance service was terminated and the local service was once again put under contract until the fire department could bring in its own EMTs and transport units.

But those 32 or 33 minutes as we waited for an ambulance were some of the longest of my life. Mom and I talked after that about how we both had nearly put Dad in the car to take him to the hospital ourselves. Even driving speed limit back then, we would have had him to Baylor before the ambulance had arrived at the house. We were extremely lucky he hadn’t died. As it was, damage to his heart had been done and there was no way to fix that. We will never know how many months or years we were denied with him as a result. (He died seven years after that.)

Because of that, I can imagine how those parents felt waiting for the EMTs to even respond to the firefighters’ calls. I applaud those two firefighters for making what had to be a tough decision. Their priority was making sure the child was all right, not in worrying about whether they were violating a technicality by getting her to the hospital as soon as possible.

Did the firefighters break the rules? Probably. Did they have good cause? Most definitely. Should they be suspended? I don’t know. I don’t know what the actual rules are where they volunteer. But, as a parent and as a child who went through something similar with a parent, I am glad they put the life of the 18-month old ahead of the consequences they might have faced. Hopefully, she will be able to make a full recovery.


  1. Former Army medic with some additional training, but NOT an expert. In a situation like that, the only thing anyone on the way could have done was exactly what the two volunteers did. According to the senior firefighter on the scene, emergency help was 10-15 minutes out. by transporting her in the fire engine, she was on oxygen on the trip there, and was in the trauma room 13 minutes after they got the call. That’s about as good as it gets in terms of patient care, and that’s what the emergency services are all about.
    Your situation on the other hand: grrrrr. Bad coverage, bad communication. Budgets are a factor, but are the number of years of life lost included on the spreadsheet? They SHOULD be. I drove myself to the hospital in the middle of what I thought was a heart attack (it wasn’t) and realized that was the way to get things done. The next two times I went to the hospital, once for an intestinal blockage that almost killed me, the second time when I lost the end joint to a finger. no way was I going to rely on an ambulance. It’s all about the response time. The very best care while in route doesn’t make up for a 30 minute delay in arriving on scene.
    Maybe I need to survey our services, and see what response times are.

    1. Pat, I agree with you about the firefighters. They did what they should have and I hate that they are being punished for it. As for what happened with Dad, yeah, we were pissed and the neighbors, in some ways, more so. I still don’t know everything they said and did to get the city to cancel the contract with that particular ambulance company but within 2 months, the city was out of that contract and back in with the original company we had dealt with. Shortly after that, we moved — to the city where the good company was located — and not long after that, the company became part of the fire department as city employed EMTs. After that, we never had more than a 3 minutes response time. I was relieved to see that hadn’t changed when I had to call them for Mom this past September. I placed the 911 call and then called one of my best friends to let her know. The ambulance was here before I finished the call. (we now live 1/2 mile, maybe, from the nearest fire station.)

  2. Almost always, there is a *specified response time* in EMS contracts. If your “local” agency (city/county) _doesn’t_ have one, demand it. That includes recall/impeachment elections, if necessary. If the specified time is exceeded, there should be *heavy* fines and/or loss of contract for penalties.

    1. Agreed. Shortly (within a couple of years) after that, the city in question went to city employed EMTs who are part of the fire department).

  3. A long time ago there was an ambulance driver’s blog, who basically had the advice that if you can drive someone to the hospital, you’re better off driving them to the hospital than dealing with an ambulance. I think it was but can’t be sure, as it looks like they got in trouble for writing it and deleted all their posts.

    1. I’ve had EMTs tell me basically the same thing and have actually followed that advice. I didn’t do so when my mother got sick in September because everything had happened so quickly and she was so weak as a result that I couldn’t get her to the car. Fortunately, our EMTs are very good and were quick to respond.

  4. “Volunteer suspended” makes the insurance and regulatory folks happy, preserving the department’s ability to serve the community. Fired is different!

    1. I have a feeling that had everything to do with it, especially if the volunteers had not violated written policy as one of the other firefighters quoted in the article said.

  5. I wonder if there is a section in their rules about what is acceptable when things are amiss or such. I know in the FCC rule part 97, which covers amateur radio, that it lays out licenses, frequency allocations, power levels, and modulation types by level of license and covers various other limits. But there is also one short section that is, roughly, “In case of emergency involving immediate threat to life or property, these rules are suspended.” So, if you have piece of radio gear that can call for help, you are allowed to use it. As soon as things are taken care of, course, get off the air, and be ready to explain why that was necessary – but that should be all. I have been fortunate to never need to invoke that bit, and hope I never have need of it. But it’s a good thing it’s there.

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