Clayton firefighters to answer more medical calls

ndunn@newsobserver.comJuly 7, 2014 

Clayton firefighters will soon respond to more medical emergencies, a change that could double call volume but also save lives.

Right now, the Clayton Fire Department responds only to cases of cardiac arrests. But starting Oct. 1, firefighters will answer a broader range of serious medical emergencies by opting into a countywide service program.

Nineteen fire departments have agreements with Johnston County to provide medical-responder service in their districts. Clayton, which included the program in its fiscal 2014-15 budget, will be the 20th.

Johnston County EMS Division Chief Josh Holloman said firefighters can respond quicker to some medical calls and often provide extra, needed manpower. A typical EMS crew is made up of two paramedics, while most fire companies use engines that roll with three to four firefighters, he said.

“On critical calls, it’s important that we have additional personnel to not only provide hands but to assist with equipment and with advanced intervention,” Holloman said.

Clayton will not respond to all medical calls, only acute emergencies. Fire Chief Lee Barbee said his department has been preparing for the transition for a few years, adding that the majority of his firefighters are EMT certified.

Johnston County provides $5,000 stipends to fire departments that provide medical-responder service. The county also sets aside $50,000 that it gives to fire departments based on call volumes throughout the year.

Barbee, who estimated the service will double his department’s 700-800 calls each year, said the change will also put more wear and tear on vehicles. He said funding from the county could be higher, but it’s not all about the money.

“When you talk about service for the community and why we are here and what we do, I think that’s the important thing,” Barbee said.

The Clayton Fire Department is among the last in Johnston to start providing medical-responder service. The other holdouts are Bentonville, Strickland’s Crossroads, Brogden and 50/210.

Before starting the service, Barbee said, Clayton did its homework to make sure medical care would not compromise the department’s main duty of fire protection.

“Any change or program we start, we prepare for it so it’s not a sudden impact,” Barbee said.

Holloman said increased support from firefighters and advanced training for paramedics have helped the county’s survival rate for cardiac arrest grow to 15 percent. That’s more than the national survival rate of about 10 percent.

North Carolina law makes counties responsible for providing EMS services to residents. However, many counties have started using fire departments to augment their services. Wake County, for instance, requires all fire departments to provide first-responder medical service.

Clayton Town Councilman Jason Thompson, a paramedic and a manager with Johnston Ambulance Service, said the medical-responder service can be a hard sell to some towns.

“They look at it as a deficiency of EMS, not as an addition of a service we can provide,” Thompson said. “But what we have to look at, at the end of the day, is what service can be provided to the citizens?”

Thompson noted that in areas like the Glen Laurel community off of N.C. 42 East, no EMS base is nearby. However, Clayton Fire Department’s Station 2 is close and could provide quick medical response.

“We already have the training, and we already have the staff,” Thompson said. “If there is a service that we can provide to citizens to increase their quality of life, we need to do it.”

Dunn: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104

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