New ALS ambulance service launched in Texas community

Sugar Land fire department adds paramedics and four ambulances to improve response times to life-threatening events

By Jayme Fraser
Houston Chronicle

SUGAR LAND, Texas — Sugar Land will launch its own ambulance service Thursday, a decade after the suburb southwest of Houston expressed dissatisfaction with the county's EMS program.

Fort Bend County's Emergency Medical Service ran two ambulances in Sugar Land, although they also were responsible for areas outside the booming city. Unhappy with the average response time – particularly for life-threatening events – and the quality of records transfers to hospitals, Sugar Land leaders tried unsuccessfully to convince the county to fund additional ambulances for their area. By 2012, city council approved funding to expand the fire department to include an ambulance service.

"We believe we've created a flexible network that will respond to structural fires, routine EMS calls and advanced life support situations requiring two paramedics," Sugar Land spokesman Doug Adolph said.

The Sugar Land Fire Department hired an EMS battalion chief and 13 paramedic firefighters. Ten existing members of fire crews earned paramedic certification. The department expanded its dispatch operation, purchased equipment, developed protocols with area hospitals and practiced the procedures to prepare for the launch this week.

Stations No. 1, 2 and 4 will each be assigned an ambulance. A fourth ambulance will roam citywide during peak call hours. A fifth is being maintained as a reserve. Fort Bend County operated its two ambulances out of Station No. 2 and its own EMS facility near U.S. 59 and Williams Trace.

"This new service could literally mean the difference between life and death, as seconds often make a significant difference in public safety response," said Assistant Fire Chief Mario Partida, who led the ambulance launch project, in a press statement.

In 2003, Sugar Land Medical Director Dr. Joe Anzaldua told City Council it was critical to achieve an eight-minute response time for 90 percent of calls dealing with an event when death is a time-sensitive risk.

In a 2005 report, Fort Bend County EMS reported that it responded to 64 percent of all calls within 10 minutes. That rate has increased to 78 percent today, according to the 2015 budget.

In addition to running more ambulances, Sugar Land hopes to decrease response times by streamlining how paramedics are dispatched. Previously, when a person called 911 they talked with a Sugar Land dispatcher, were transferred to a Fort Bend dispatcher who sent the ambulance and was transferred back to the Sugar Land dispatcher. The shuffle sometimes delayed the arrival of an ambulance by a full minute, city officials have said.

"Starting Thursday, when someone calls EMS they will only speak with one of our dispatchers here in Sugar Land and they will deploy the resources that are needed to address the medical emergency," Adolph said.

Fort Bend County officials have said the launch of Sugar Land's service will allow them to reassign their two ambulances to serve areas where call volumes have increased.

Sugar Land's creation of an ambulance service has contributed to staffing difficulties in Fort Bend County's program in the last year. Other factors included increased demand for paramedics in the booming Houston region and competition driving up wages.

Of the 73 paramedic positions budgeted for 2015, as many as 15 were unfilled at a time. It drove up overtime spending, left Fort Bend unable to deploy some ambulances and made it difficult for the remaining paramedics to use vacation time.

©2014 the Houston Chronicle

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