Ambulance crews overwhelmed with heat-related calls in Calif.

By Lynn Doan
Los Angeles Times
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times
All Rights Reserved
FRESNO, Calif. — The unprecedented heat wave gripping Fresno County has exhausted emergency workers, swamped morgues and inundated city services and hospitals beyond capacity.

The death toll kept mounting Thursday, with authorities linking 104 fatalities statewide over the last two weeks to the heat, including 22 cases here. Other hard-hit counties were Stanislaus, with 16 deaths confirmed or presumed to be heat-related, and Sacramento, with 11 cases.

In addition, the Larkin fire near the Lava Beds National Monument in far Northern California was threatening three major power lines supplying electricity from Oregon. Officials said that if the transmission lines went out, it could further crimp the power supply — a situation that wouldn't cripple the state but would raise the need for Californians to cut back on electricity use.

Strains from the heat wave were evident at University Medical Center in Fresno, the region's main trauma and burn facility, which over the weekend ran out of gurneys for patients in the emergency room. Fresno County Coroner Loralee Cervantes has said her department was doubling up bodies on gurneys due to space constraints.

And the county's ambulance providers have seen a 28% increase in emergency calls.

University Medical Center nurses rushed extra hospital beds into emergency hallways to make room for more people Saturday and Sunday. By Thursday, extra beds were no longer necessary, but patients still lined the halls while waiting for a room to open up.

"In the 12 years I've been here, I've never seen anything like this," said Gerald Harder, the center's emergency services coordinator. "We're just inundated."

The hospital was forced to shut its doors to all except trauma and burn patients for two hours Monday. It was the first diversion in more than four years, hospital spokeswoman Mary Lisa Russell said.

"We just couldn't take any more people," she said.

In the emergency room at Fresno Community Hospital, patients were being placed in green, yellow and red zones -- with red being the most critical area. Dozens of people on stretchers lined the red-zone hallways. Most patients were senior citizens.

Fresno Community Hospital and the University Medical Center combined to treat well over 60 patients for heat-related illnesses last weekend. And on Monday, they treated nearly 50 more. Six were in critical condition.

Cervantes said Wednesday she was concerned that her agency wouldn't have the resources to handle the 50 bodies crammed into the morgue. Deputy coroners and technicians were working nonstop in rooms with temperatures reaching 90 degrees, Cervantes said.

"They're working until they can't bear it anymore," she said.

Meanwhile, some paramedics were handling almost double their normal number of calls. By noon Thursday, Ben Garcia had responded to seven calls, and he expected to answer two or three more before his shift ended at 4:40 p.m.

"It's been crazy busy," said Hal Fielding, field supervisor for American Ambulance, the county's primary ambulance provider. "We're going on all sorts of heat calls." On Wednesday, Garcia said, he responded to a call about an 80-year-old woman who had fallen to the ground Sunday and had remained there until someone found her.

"She's still alive," he said, "for now."

The county's ambulance services responded to a record 673 calls Monday, a good number of them being heat-related. "I figured we'd just haul everyone into the hospitals on Monday," Fielding said, laughing. "That way, there would be nobody left to bring in on Tuesday."

But the calls continued to pour in.

The rising death toll prompted city officials to launch Operation Cool Down. Cooling centers have been established around town, city swimming pools are offering free admission and five city buses have been turned into "mobile cooling units." In their spare time, city bus drivers have been taking the cooling buses to rural areas of Fresno County.

The city also has set up a hotline to provide residents with information on cooling centers. The hotline received a record 101 calls Tuesday, city officials said.

Agencies, looking for a silver lining, hope the problems will subside as temperatures fall. But they're bracing for a slow descent.

Shaking his head, Fielding said, "See, it's just a pleasant 109 today."

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