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Ask Matt ... When do first responders 'run hot'

Q. I read recently that ambulances save only a few seconds driving to a hospital with sirens on. What is our local policy?

It depends. For emergency responders, there are two important legs of a call – getting to the patient’s location and then getting the patient to the hospital. “If the call is deemed an emergency, we run lights and sirens to the scene; if it is a non-emergency we don’t,” said Mike Barnett, Henderson County Emergency Medical Service manager. Most of the time lights and sirens are not used en route to the hospital. “This is because of the advanced level of treatment our EMTs can administer before and during transport,” said Barnett. “And we carry life-saving equipment and drugs that can counteract, say, an allergic reaction or an overdose.”
I found a story that ran in the New York Times last October where Christopher Mele reported that more than a dozen studies have estimated that lights-and-sirens shaved 42 seconds to three minutes off the time of a trip to the scene of a call. He went on to question the need for “running hot” (lights and sirens) because of the number of deaths and injuries sustained by those riding in emergency response vehicles traveling at high rates of speed.
The decision an EMS driver makes to turn on lights and sirens is determined by what information is first received at the County’s 911 center. “They use the national Emergency Medical Dispatch protocols,” said Barnett. “Dispatchers process the information they get from the caller to determine the medical condition of the patient and the level of treatment that EMTs can provide.”
The Times article also addressed siren technology. Research has shown that drivers don’t hear sirens until they are about 80 feet away. They might be listening to music, talking, have their windows up with the A/C running at full blast. To offset these distractions and today’s “soundproof” cars, sirens must be loud and recognizable. “Our emergency response vehicles come with several different types of sirens,” said Barnett. “The driver can flip a switch to change the sound which they might do when approaching an intersection.” Most police vehicles have this same switching capability.
Fire truck sirens are designed not to sound like police or EMS vehicles. “Fire trucks typically employ two sirens – a loud ‘federal siren’ (brand name) and a lower toned electronic siren,” said Henderson County Fire Marshal Kevin Waldrup. “Both are distinguishable from the EMS sirens.” Waldrup added that in past years it was not uncommon to see volunteers answering a call driving their personal vehicles with red lights flashing, but today most firefighters answer calls directly from the station.
Our Henderson County Sheriff’s Office reported that each deputy has to make the decision to use lights and sirens on their own. Factors include the seriousness of the call, the traffic load, the time of day, and the response distance. Johnny Duncan Jr., the sheriff’s office’s public information officer, spoke about “dropping” lights and sirens in some cases. “A classic example would be an officer responding to a bank alarm where the officer could decide to run ‘Code 3’ because the call is an emergency,” said Duncan. “But the siren would need to be off before arriving at the bank so that the suspect or lookout would not be alerted.”
The city of Little Rock, Arkansas, found a way of getting the attention of motorists. They are installing “Howlers” in their police and fire trucks. In addition to lights and sirens, the Howler emits sound waves that can actually penetrate a vehicle and shake the fixtures inside.
North Carolina law allows certain exceptions for emergency response vehicles to exceed speed limits but with the caveat that such excess must be done in a “safe manner.” The issue of safe driving has not escaped the city of Hendersonville, where police officers follow an eight-page driving policy which stresses safety and accountability. One section for example requires that officers stop or reduce speed before entering a controlled intersection. “We work hard with our officers on how to drive in emergency situations,” said Police Chief Blair Myhand. “Emergency driving is dangerous and people are often not watching and listening,”
Another emergency warning device you may hear is a pole-mounted siren at a fire station. These devices, of which there are only nine in the County, would be used to signal an approaching tornado. “During the early days of firefighting, volunteers were notified by phone calls and station sirens,” said Jimmy Brissie, Henderson County’s Emergency Services director. “Now digital radios, pagers and cell phones are the primary means.” Residents are living farther from fire stations than before and homes are more soundproof thus reducing the siren’s effectiveness. “Fire station sirens have a distinct sound similar to the air raid sirens of the 1950s and 1960s,” Brissie said. “They typically consist of a long duration higher pitched tone followed by a short duration low tone.” Activated remotely from the 911 center, these devices are usually tested on Saturdays.

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