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‘The difference between life and death'

Mike Pflugh, chief of Unionville Volunteer Fire Company, checks a medical response bag filled with gear Wednesday, March 15, at the fire station in Center Township. Cary Shaffer/Butler Eagle
EMS training enables Unionville firefighters to get to high-priority medical calls quickly

CENTER TWP — People calling 911 for medical emergencies in certain regions of Butler County now may see a fire department vehicle pulling up to them instead of an ambulance.

Mike Pflugh, chief of Unionville Volunteer Fire Company, said the department became certified to respond to high-priority medical calls in March 2022. In August, the department began being dispatched to higher-priority medical calls, with several staff members being certified RNs and EMTs.

“We can get anywhere in Center Township faster than Slippery Rock Ambulance can,” said Nathan Wulff, assistant chief of Unionville VFC. “Once the ambulance gets there, more hands are always beneficial, particularly when you're talking cardiac arrest; that's a difficult call for two people to manage.”

And Unionville VFC is not the only department trying to alleviate what Pflugh said is a staffing crisis for EMS.

Rob McLafferty, Butler County 911 coordinator, said the other county fire departments that respond to high-priority medical calls are Bruin Volunteer Fire Department, Butler Bureau of Fire, Eau Claire VFC, Herman VFC, Marion Township VFC, North Washington VFC and Prospect VFD.

The patients who need 911 assistance are the biggest beneficiaries to this influx of firefighter training.

“With the fire department responding to these types of calls, they are oftentimes arriving within minutes of the call, and that could be the difference between life and death,” McLafferty said.

The fire company now averages just over 30 medical calls a month, while still maintaining responses to other emergencies such as vehicle crashes and fires. Wulff said the department now responds to nearly 80 calls of all kinds per month.

Wulff also said a goal of the department getting staff members and its vehicles certified through the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians is to decrease the time it takes to get to patients in need.

“I wouldn't say what we are doing is a solution, but it's a step in the right direction and a necessity,” Wulff said. “We can't make the ambulance get there any faster, but there are people providing care.”

Medical training

Unionville VFC has about 30 active members. Four of them are certified pre-hospital RNs, six are certified EMTs and two more EMTs passed the class and are testing with the national registry, Pflugh said, adding that seven students are enrolled in emergency medical response class.

Pflugh and Denny Crawford, EMS commander with Unionville VFC, were certified as registered nurses in the 1980s.

A firefighter needs to complete 80 hours of training to become an RN, and 130 hours of training to become an EMT. Both certifications also require applicants to pass a test following their training.

According to Wulff, before August 2022, Unionville VFC would respond to medical calls only if requested by the assigned ambulance service. Additionally, the department would provide support for vehicle crashes involving medical emergencies, with members using tools for rescue and injury mitigation.

Crawford said the EMS-certified firefighters have been performing some duties they used to for vehicle crashes, but on a wider variety of patients.

“We'll do initial patient assessment, address any lifesaving issues like bleeding, airway compromise or cardiac arrest,” Crawford said, “and then we would assess vital signs, put all that into a written format, so when the ambulance gets there, we can just transfer that and we can help with lift assist.”

Medical emergencies

The medical calls the department responds to are some of the most severe levels of emergencies reported to 911, coded as Echo and Delta — the highest and second highest alerts, respectively, for medical calls.

Pflugh said Echo calls are for instances when a person is in immediate danger of dying, for instance a person not breathing or heavily injured, and Delta calls are emergencies where a patient could progress to a state in which they could die.

“We can assist the Echoes — for Deltas we can make a huge difference,” Pflugh said. “Keeping them from getting to the Echo point is big.”

According to McLafferty, the 911 center adjusted its dispatch protocols when Unionville VFC was certified to respond to medical emergencies.

“Instead of being dispatched on every ambulance call, they are now being alerted to the calls where they are needed most,” McLafferty said. “By changing the way we dispatch, we are using the appropriate amount of resources.”

Pflugh recalled a recent Echo call which involved a child who hit his head at a business in Center Township. According to Pflugh, the firefighters were able to get to the location, evaluate the patient and prepare him for the ambulance.

“Any head trauma is going to probably be an Echo,” Pflugh said.

Denny Crawford, EMS commander with Unionville Volunteer Fire Company, loads gear into a vehicle at the fire department Wednesday, March 15, in Center Township. Cary Shaffer/Butler Eagle
Response times

Wulff said that according to fire department reports, Unionville VFC’s en route time to a medical emergency averages around three minutes from dispatch, and firefighters spend an average of six minutes on scene.

Crawford said having more responders to emergencies helps lower time spent on scene.

“We are in turn actually making a quicker turnaround time and quicker scene time so the ambulance can get back in service,” Crawford said.

Wulff, too, said having firefighters with medical training is one way of helping with the lack of EMS workers, and more trained people being on a scene can greatly improve a patient’s chances of surviving an emergency.

“Just having four or five people there, some of the lower trained people can do CPR and things like that and allow higher trained people to perform the unique skills that only they can perform,” Wulff said.

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