County Comment/New Dispatch Priority System In Effect

by Norman Bassett
Washington County Public Information Officer


Beginning October 1, 2003 the Washington County Department of Emergency Services and the Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association have implemented a priority dispatch system for emergency medical incidents. The use of warning lights and sirens by pre-hospital emergency medical service vehicles is a long-standing, accepted practice for emergency medical incident response. Joe Kroboth, Director of Emergency Services for Washington County said, “There is substantial risk associated with ambulance crashes in terms of injury, death and financial costs. Nationally nearly 15,000 ambulance crashes occur each year, so much that CNN has reported that an ambulance is 15 times more likely to be involved in an accident than the average passenger car.”

In an effort to curb ambulance crashes, a nationally validated program called Medical Priority Dispatch System is being used to screen 911-caller information and determine the severity of the medical emergency. Incidents in which the caller does not report priority symptoms will be alerted in what is called an “alpha” response mode. Alpha mode means that the ambulance will respond to the incident following all normal traffic laws, speed limits and traffic signs, in a non-emergency manner (meaning no use of lights and sirens). A review of historical incidents in Washington County indicate approximately 15 percent of emergency medical incidents meet the “alpha” response mode dispatch criteria.

By implementing this nationally validated system both Washington County and the Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association can better manage the risk to emergency responders and the general public. It is also an excellent tool that can be used to control the rising cost of insurance premiums for emergency vehicles.

Some typical incidents that meet the “alpha” response mode criteria include: abdominal pain, sick person, headache and back pain provided these do not include a priority symptom that requires an emergency response. Emergency Communication Specialists are trained to properly evaluate the caller’s information and are authorized to upgrade the incident to an emergency response based on the caller’s information. Priority symptoms include abnormal breathing, chest pain, decreased level of consciousness and serious hemorrhage.

Jason Baer, President of the Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association commented, “I am concerned for the safety of our emergency providers, and it is our responsibility to do what we can to minimize the risks that we expose our responders and the public to. Those incidents that meet the criteria for a non-emergency response is an excellent place to start.”

Both the Washington County Department of Emergency Services and The Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association welcome a personal interview or phone calls for additional information.