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City advised to quicken emergency responses

Mon., Aug. 17, 2009

Spokane Fire Department paramedics from Station 3 respond to an aid call on West Broadway Avenue on Thursday. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Fire Department paramedics from Station 3 respond to an aid call on West Broadway Avenue on Thursday. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON / The Spokesman-Review)

Ambulance price tag would likely increase

Relative to other cities, Spokane pays low rates for ambulance transportation. What it gives up in return is time.

A consultant studying Spokane’s emergency medical services said last week that city leaders should consider paying more for ambulance service for quicker response.

Spokane requires its ambulance provider, American Medical Response, to arrive within 10 minutes of calls for help 90 percent of the time. That meets state standards but is two minutes less than what many other larger cities require and what’s recommended by the American Heart Association, said Ken Riddle, a senior consultant with the Abaris Group, of Walnut Creek, Calif.

The City Council in April voted to spend $92,000 to hire Abaris to study local ambulance service.

The city’s AMR contract sets the price of an ambulance ride requiring advanced life support at $553. Cities that require faster response often pay more than $800, Riddle said.

“If you want them there in eight minutes, the bill is going to be a little higher,” Riddle said.

In 2005 in Spokane, only 8 percent of patients in cardiac arrest who were treated by emergency responders made it to a hospital and recovered, Riddle said.

Cities with the best survival rates probably are closer to 20 percent, he said.

According to the heart association, in cities where electric shock – defibrillation – is administered within 5 to 7 minutes of onset, the survival rate for cardiac arrest is as high as 30 to 45 percent.

Riddle said he believes AMR is serving the city well, and added that officials also need to consider whether residents can afford higher bills because the city’s median income is lower than in many other Northwest cities.

In Spokane, firefighters are the first responders to medical emergencies, while AMR handles transportation to hospitals.

Tonight and Tuesday, Riddle, a former deputy fire chief in Las Vegas, is giving members of the public a chance to express their thoughts on the city’s response to medical emergencies. He’s also holding separate sessions for city firefighters.

Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said hiring Riddle gives leaders a view from someone who is “apolitical” and who “has no bone in the fight.”

Firefighters, City Council members and administrators have long debated whether the city should take over ambulance transportation service from AMR. Fire Chief Bobby Williams has said it likely would increase the cost of the service, while some City Council members have said ambulance service could generate revenue. Riddle declined to say what his final report, which is expected to be released next month, will recommend about the city taking over the service.

Riddle’s report also will examine other department practices, such as sending large fire trucks to medical calls. Critics argue that it puts wear and tear on expensive trucks and wastes gas. Fire administrators agree but say that since layoffs five years ago, firefighters on paramedic calls need the trucks with them so they’re ready to go to the next call.

Riddle said the Fire Department is understaffed.

“I have some recommendations that may beef up their staff without actually hiring,” Riddle said.

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