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Scene of T-bone car crash at Barrett and W Smith roads (April 17, 2017). Photo: Discover Ferndale

Why do fire trucks respond to medical emergency calls?

Your neighborhood is rattled by the sound of sirens and loud trucks that fill the block as the staff onboard rush to render aid to a neighbor. There are fire engines and ambulances but later you learn your neighbor had a medical emergency. So why so many trucks and why were fire engines sent for a medical emergency? According to everyone asked these questions at the Washington Street Fire Station, they are questions they hear frequently and they understand why.

The dispatchers at the Prospect Communication Center, where fire and aid dispatches are handled, utilize a detailed and complicated system developed and updated by each Whatcom County Fire Districts to triage, process and dispatch fire and aid units. The goal is to do so as efficiently as possible based on the information provided by the reporting party. The need for manpower, medical training and equipment varies based on the nature of the severity and type of injuries or illness reported.

Fire engines, aid units and medic units (both often referred to as ambulances) all have different numbers of staff onboard as well as different specialty equipment and personnel with advanced training.

An aid unit typically carries two emergency medical technicians (EMTs) who are trained to handle basic life support (BLS) situations. They are prepared to provide immediate medical emergency response, treatment and transport to the hospital.

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In cases where there are advance life support (ALS) concerns, a medic unit may be dispatched with two staff, at least one of whom is a paramedic, equipped to provide immediate care, intervention (levels of care often associated with in-hospital treatment) and transport for life-threatening emergencies.

What most people do not understand, according to WCFD7 officials, is the number of staff required to attend to a single patient. One example given is how staff can be kept busy moving furniture around or keeping pets out of the way so a gurney can be quickly brought in and taken out with the patient. And several staff are often required simply to lift a patient safely onto a gurney.

Another example involves cases where CPR is required. Staff need to take turns performing chest compressions, which are exhausting, while others monitor the patient, apply intravenous fluids and prepare the patient for transport to the hospital.

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Even though 70% to 80% of Fire District calls are medical emergencies, they respond using fire apparatus in addition to the aid and medic units in case they need to quickly respond to a fire emergency. This eliminates the delay in responding caused by having to return to the station to switch vehicles.

Given their frequent use on medical emergency calls, fire trucks carry much of the same equipment and supplies found in aid units.

In addition to fire and aid units, law enforcement vehicles and personnel may also arrive to provide assistance including traffic control or clearing a crime scene so medical staff can safely enter.


  1. Peggy Holstine Peggy Holstine December 15, 2017

    When I was an EMT in Honolulu in the 90s, we had to ask for extra manpower beyond our 2-3 person crews. It was the exception rather than the rule, and the burn out and injury rates were notable. It may seem like overkill to have so many responders on scene, but I’d rather have too many than too little, especially if it’s for me or my family.

  2. Cindy Sluys Cindy Sluys December 16, 2017

    Nicely said Joe!

  3. Brandy VanDeKop Brandy VanDeKop December 17, 2017

    Great info… thanks for sharing! And thank you for your excellent service!
    Merry Christmas to you!

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