Speeding ambulances and screaming sirens don't always improve a patient's chances of surviving an injury or illness. Sometimes, the trip itself can be deadly.
"Let's try to mature a little," Dr. David Persse, Houston's assistant director of emergency medical services, told a
convention of rescue personnel that opened in Baltimore yesterday. "Let's look in the mirror. Apparently, we haven't been looking too hard."
Dr. Persse said too many ambulance rides nationally are ending in tragedy because crews are rushing through traffic "with warning lights and sirens," not sufficiently aware of the traffic hazards they may create.
He cited a case two years ago in Paducah, Ky., in which an ambulance driver entered an intersection against a red light, pushing his way past two lanes of traffic until he collided in the far lane with a car whose driver couldn't see him. The ambulance was carrying a heart-attack victim who had been stabilized and stood a good chance of surviving. Instead, the patient died after the ambulance was immobilized by the crash.
The talk was one of many scheduled for the three-day conference, EMS Today, at the Baltimore Convention Center. The annual convention is expected to draw about 2,500 people, most of them paramedics, emergency medical technicians and people who run emergency medical systems and ambulance companies.
Flashing news articles on a screen, Dr. Persse spoke of other tragedies caused by well-meaning rescue personnel: an emergency medical technician who died when his ambulance flipped during a high-speed rescue, and a driver of a tiny %J Volkswagen who was killed when an ambulance trying to pass him at 95 mph struck his car.
"Why was he going so fast? He was responding to a call for a fracture," Dr. Persse said.
Dr. Persse said rescue systems need to do a better job distinguishing between emergencies and less serious problems that can be handled at a gentler pace. But he acknowledged that dispatchers face a big problem: People calling 911 often exaggerate their problems and hang up before giving important details.
In another presentation, Dr. Paul Pepe, director of emergency medical services in Houston, said the public can play an important role in saving people whose hearts have stopped. Heart-attack survival rates are low -- hovering just above zero -- in cities where citizens generally do not know how to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation, he said. That is because victims suffer extensive, often irreparable damage, in the minutes it takes rescue crews to arrive.
But when bystanders administer CPR, a victim's chances of surviving cardiac arrest are much higher. This literally gives patients breathing room until rescue crews arrive with more sophisticated equipment and know-how. "Eighty percent of the people in our community who get CPR right away make it," Dr. Pepe said.