When someone calls 911 for a medical emergency, the firefighters will frequently show up to help. People are always asking why this is the case. Do firefighters have medical training? Why are firefighters the first on-scene of a medical call?
Firefighters respond to medical calls because they are trained and staffed to do so. Most firefighters are EMT’s or Paramedics. In many areas, there are more fire engines in a given area than ambulances, so firefighters will usually be the first to arrive and give medical care in an emergency.
Let’s take a look at fire department staffing and why that allows firefighters to respond to medical calls. We will also talk about the medical training that is necessary for firefighters today.
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What Kind of Calls Do Firefighters Respond to?
The name “Firefighter” implies that most of the job of a firefighter is involved with actually putting out or “fighting” fire. This is actually just one component of being a firefighter.
Though a large amount of training and preparedness goes into extinguishing fires, for most modern fire departments, it is only a small portion of the emergency calls they respond to.
(This article is written from my knowledge of the American Professional Fire Service (United States) and may not be accurate for some volunteer departments or other areas of the world.)
Firefighters are now more than ever expected to be a “jack-of-all-trades”. They need to be prepared to respond to a wide variety of calls for service. Here is a list of some of these types of calls:
- Fires (houses, commercial buildings, cars, wildland or brush, etc.)
- Emergency Medical Service (EMS)
- Hazardous Materials (Chemicals and other toxic substances)
- Technical Rescue (Confined Space, Rope Rescue, Trench)
- Lift-Assist (Helping physically disabled people who don’t have any injuries)
- Lock-out (Someone who locks their child or pet in the car with the keys)
- Police assist (Helping the police with any number of tasks that need special tools or training)
- Water removal (Help minimize damage from flooding in a residence)
- Gas Investigation (Checking for possible Natural Gas or Carbon Monoxide)
This is just a small sample of the types of calls. We are called to new emergencies all the time. Whenever someone calls 911 and the dispatch isn’t sure who can help with that issue, the firefighters are usually called. Firefighters are effectively well trained and equipped problem solvers.
Whatever the scenario may be, people call us when they need help solving some sort of problem. That is one of my favorite parts about being a firefighter; working as a team to solve all kinds of problems. Sometimes they are problems we have never dealt with and have no specific training in, yet we are expected to find a solution.
Emergency Medical Services (EMS)
Of all the different types of calls that the fire department receives, the overwhelming majority, in most areas, are for emergency medical service or EMS. Typically, 70% to 80% are EMS related calls. That means that firefighters spend more time rendering medical care than they do putting out fires.
During medical emergencies, time can be of the essence. Certain conditions such as strokes (also called CVA or Cerebral Vascular Accident), heart attacks (or Myocardial Infarction) and severe traumatic accidents require the patients to be seen and treated in a very short time window to give them the best chance of a positive outcome.
It is during these and other serious emergencies where the firefighter’s ability to arrive, assess and treat the victims very quickly is a huge asset for the community. If they had to wait for the closest ambulance in these scenarios, many people would have less favorable outcomes.
In developed areas of the country, fires are less frequent than in the past. Improvements in construction materials, changes to building and fire codes, as well as increased efficiency in fire prevention have made structure fires a less common occurrence. (Wildland or brush fires are entirely different).
However, staffing a fire department with enough personnel can be challenging. When fires do break out, it is extremely important that there are an adequate number of properly trained and equipped firefighters ready to respond quickly. Each department goes about handling this in different ways, based on the specific needs of its community.
As the fire department has evolved over the years, they have used their staffing needs to the advantage of its citizens. Firefighters took on the role of EMS providers, in addition to its other responsibilities, in the ’70s and ’80s.
It made a lot of sense to use the firefighters that departments already had to expand into the area of EMS, as this is and will for the foreseeable future, be a core need of most communities.
Why Do Fire Crews Respond with the Ambulance?
Like we discussed above, firefighters are very involved in emergency medical care in many parts of the country. You have probably seen fire engines responding alongside ambulances, as is quite common.
The layout and staffing of the fire department means that there are usually more fire engines and trucks, in a given area, than there are ambulances. The firefighters are usually able to arrive first to the scene of a medical emergency and render aide to the patient.
Firefighters are able to assess and stabilize and serious injuries or conditions before the ambulance arrives. They are able to get them “packaged” and ready to be transported to the hospital, so the time until the patient is seen and treated by a doctor is minimized.
In most counties, the ambulance service is run by a private company. These companies bid on a contract to provide 911 ambulance transport for the county. While the fire department is most often funded through tax revenue; private ambulance companies will bill the people they treat and transport for the services they provide. These can be very lucrative contracts and the private companies have different priorities than those of the local fire departments.
There are some fire departments that manage the ambulance service as well. In addition to the fire suppression, these departments maintain and staff there own ambulances. They may be staffed with firefighters or it may be EMTs and paramedics that are employed directly by the fire department.
This model is used instead of the private ambulance service, but the fire department may also bill for transport. However, in this scenario, it is usually more about recouping costs than to make any profit.
All these factors can affect the fire and ambulance services that are used in any particular area, and therefore, who will respond to medical calls.
Do Firefighters Have Medical Training?
So, if firefighters are spending a large amount of their time responding to medical calls, are they trained to do so? Yes, most firefighter these days are at least EMT (Emergency Medical Technicians) and many are Paramedics. (Career firefighters, some volunteer fire departments may not have these requirements).
This is the same level of training as those responding on the ambulance. When it comes to pre-hospital emergency responders, there are a few different levels of training and education:
- First Responders – Basic First Aid
- EMT Basic – Approx 150 hours of training including CPR
- EMT Advanced – More advanced EMT skills only recognized in some states
- Paramedics – All EMT Basic training plus approx 1800 hours of additional education and training
The fire department is responsible for a lot more than just putting out fires. Emergency medical calls make up a big part of a firefighter’s job. They are well trained and equipped to provide the same level of life-saving care as an ambulance and they usually can get to the victim in much less time. They are a very important part of the pre-hospital medical team.