On the heels of a sharp rise in the number of calls to help obese people, the Baltimore County Fire Department has acquired new equipment to accommodate such patients: a larger, sturdier stretcher and a ramp and winches to pull it into medical vehicles.
The new equipment -- which cost about $16,000 -- was on display yesterday, as county fire officials explained that the number of calls for bariatric patients has risen eightfold in the past five years, up to as many as 40 annually.
But more than just providing a needed practical capability, the equipment affords a more respectful way to serve obese patients, said Joseph Brown, director of EMS for the county fire department.
Dundalk was the scene of a much-publicized call for service in the spring of 2005, when fire officials needed to use a sling from the National Aquarium and a flatbed utility truck to transport a man weighing 800 pounds to a hospital.
In other cases, emergency crews have had to lay bariatric patients on sheets of plywood and pull them to a transport vehicle, she said.
About a year ago, fire officials began researching equipment, including gear that had been purchased by their counterparts in New York and Philadelphia, designed for bariatric patients.
In May the department purchased the specialized stretcher and trained responders from the Parkville station in using the device.
The standard stretcher used by the county is about 23 inches wide and can carry a maximum of about 550 pounds. The new stretcher is 29 inches wide and can carry up to 1,600 pounds. It weighs about 160 pounds, or twice as much as a standard stretcher, Brown said.
Officials say the county's Fire Department-based EMS is the first in Maryland to acquire such equipment, though some commercial ambulance companies in the region have the gear.
Armacost said the new equipment does not solve every problem posed by responding to bariatric patients. She said that in some cases, crews have taken down doors and walls to remove people from their residence.
"The whole unit should make things easier for our personnel, more comfortable for the patient and help get them to the hospital more quickly," she said.
Ken Bouvier, president of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians, said that as Americans' waistlines have increased, so has the need for specialized stretchers.
"It's a growing trend, nationwide," he said.
Some fire departments are sharing stretchers with other regional fire units because the devices are costly, Bouvier said.
The stretchers are useful because those who are in need of the device are likely to have medical conditions that require emergency help more than once.
"We recognize that we have to have that type of equipment because it's a part of customer demand," he said.
Emergency crews also are feeling the effects of an overweight society, Bouvier said, adding that back pain has become a common problem for medical crews.