As emergency needs grow, Elmhurst looking at whether it needs to improve EMS resources

Options include new ambulance, new equipment for fire engines, or status quo

emergency medical services
A city of Elmhurst ambulance is seen at the site of the VIP Occasions fire on York Street in January. (Elmhurst Titan file photo)

ELMHURST – Calls for emergency medical service in Elmhurst are on the rise in recent years, and while the city’s ambulance and fire services have been able to adjust to meet that increased need, it’s clear that some city officials and residents are concerned about how long existing resources will be up to the challenge.

The city’s Public Affairs and Safety Committee has been looking at the issue this month with the intent of determining if there’s a need for new equipment or new operating methods.

At the same time, a group of local residents has been attending the committee’s meetings to push the city to add Advanced Life Support capabilities to its fire engines, thereby increasing the level of medical treatment possible when a fire engine reaches the scene of a medical call before an ambulance.

At the Feb. 13 and Feb. 27 meetings of the committee, the fire and police departments gave presentations about the statistics they’re seeing in regards to fire and emergency medical calls, with historical data going back about a decade for context. Both departments frequently send out units to respond to medical emergencies – the fire department more frequently than the police – and their data for the past decade showed a clear trend toward increasing medical emergency calls. Where there were 2,944 calls for EMS in 2006, including 1,271 calls where fire engines assisted, those numbers rose by 2016 to 4,067 total EMS calls and 1,848 calls where fire engines assisted.

The police department saw a similar increase, from 1,250 calls to assist ambulances in 2008 to 1,720 in 2016.

“I think the question more is on the medical side, on the EMS response … because of the increasing number of times we’ve got to go.”

The fire department’s two ambulances are each allotted to one half of the city on a typical basis, and in the rare event that both are already in use, a “mutual aid” call for an ambulance from a neighboring community is made. In those instances, of course, the response time to that third call would be longer because of the distance traveled by an ambulance coming from Villa Park or Bensenville or some other town.

Geoff Gaebel, an Elmhurst resident who is also a firefighter in another DuPage County community, sees this as precisely the reason to consider adding ALS equipment to Elmhurst fire engines. Currently the fire engines meet the lower BLS standard, which stands for Basic Life Support.

“[There are] 33 fire departments or fire districts within DuPage County, either all or part, that have ALS fire engines already in service,” Gaebel said at Monday’s committee meeting. “We look to our neighbors to the east, our Cook County towns that touch us: Northlake has ALS fire engines, Hillside has ALS fire engines, and as of last week, the tiny town of Berkeley has ALS fire engines.”

Gaebel asserted that any costs associated with an ALS rollout could be mitigated by doing it in stages.

“We know that there’s the ability to phase this in, it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing 100 percent, pedal to the metal [effort]; we can phase it in one at a time,” he said. “We currently have over a dozen paramedics that are firefighters for the city of Elmhurst already.”

Alderman Chris Healy, chairman of the Public Affairs and Safety Committee.
Alderman Chris Healy, chairman of the Public Affairs and Safety Committee.

Alderman Chris Healy, chairman of the Public Affairs and Safety Committee, indicated that his goal in requesting the updates from the fire and police departments was to ultimately issue a report to the full City Council with recommendations for how to proceed. To that end, he asked the fire department for more data speaking to how often, on average, fire engines reach the scene of medical emergencies before ambulances, and in those cases, how long the gap was between the arrival of the fire engine and the arrival of the ambulance.

“I’ve seen nothing that concerns me about our fire response – I’ve seen nothing that concerns me about the medical, but I think the question more is on the medical side, on the EMS response … because of the increasing number of times we’ve got to go,” Healy said.

Fire Chief Thomas Freeman indicated that he would look to have that data available for the committee’s next meeting on March 13.

Healy said that a number of options were on the table, depending on what the data shows, including adding a third ambulance to the department, adding ALS equipment to the fire engines, or even doing nothing at all if the numbers show that there’s no issue with the status quo.

“At the next meeting we’re going to start having the ALS conversation, start having a third ambulance conversation, [or even] no response. If the information shows us the fire engines aren’t getting there faster than the ambulances … the information may lead us to say we’re OK.”

“If one of us stops breathing, our heart stops beating, right now, would you rather have two skilled trained people working on you, or three?”

If the data appears to show that nothing needs to be done, that probably won’t satisfy the residents who showed up to talk to the committee.

“In Elmhurst, the Fire Department only responds on more serious calls, so having that third paramedic on a more serious call is a very valuable thing,” Gaebel said. “If one of us stops breathing, our heart stops beating, right now, would you rather have two skilled trained people working on you, or three?”

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