EMS experts, journalists praise 2003 USA TODAY series that changed the industry

“Six Minutes to Live or Die” has been re-released in honor of the newspaper's 40th birthday

By Leila Merrill

McLEAN, Va. — One of USA TODAY’s most impactful pieces of journalism in its 40-year history — in the opinion of many staffers and some in EMS — is the “Six Minutes to Live or Die” series that showed 1,000 lives were “needlessly lost each year” because of EMS inefficiencies.

For the 2003 three-part series, reporter Bob Davis examined ambulance records throughout the nation over 18 months.

“Emergency medical systems in most of the nation's 50 largest cities are fragmented, inconsistent and slow,” and as little as six minutes in response times can make a difference between good and bad outcomes, the series concluded.

It also stated that sometimes “turf wars” between ambulance and fire department services delayed responses.

Davis, a former paramedic, said, “cardiac arrest survival was a matter of geography. Your odds of death were often dramatically higher than on one side of a jurisdictional line than on the other side of the street.” 

Davis’ investigation gets credit for spurring localities to change their response procedures.

Tom Bouthillet, program implementation manager for RQI Partners and retired battalion chief of EMS for Hilton Head Island Fire Rescue, praised the series and its writer this week on Facebook.

“Please join me in congratulating Bob Davis. His seminal work Six Minutes to Live or Die has been recognized as one of the 40 moments the newspaper made a difference to its readers, our nation and its staff. It's not an exaggeration to say that hundreds of victims sudden cardiac arrest have survived to hospital discharge with good functional capacity because of Bob's work. I'm honored to count myself as a friend and colleague. Well done!” Bouthillet posted.

The series influenced EMS providers.

"As a fairly new EMT, I had done CPR a few times when this series was published, but I wasn't aware that there was so much variability in the response to and treatment of cardiac arrest," Greg Friese, EMS1 editorial director, said. "After reading this series, like a lot of EMTs and paramedics everywhere, I was inspired to join efforts in my community to improve cardiac arrest survival." 

Take a look back at USA TODAY’s birthday top 40 articles list here and at the influential series here.

Did “Six Minutes to Live or Die” have an impact on you or your agency? Post your thoughts in the comment section.


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