Monthly Archives: March 2016

What If We're Wrong About Response Times?

Anyone who follows my posts here, or on Twitter, will recognize that I consistently argue for the value of prompt responses by emergency vehicles to nearly all incidents. However, this post will be different thanks to an inventive challenge through EMS Basics asking bloggers to consider an opposing view to their favorite topic. You can read about the challenge and link to other participating blog posts in The Second Great EMS What-If-We’re-Wrong-a-Thon.

There actually are some valid arguments against rapid responses, so let me begin with pointing out the lack of a recognized national standard. If a short response was really an evidence-based practice, there should be some agreement on exactly what a “short response” means. The NFPA and NIST standards suggest response times for all hazards, but are really focused on requirements for structure fires and have more to do with the central placement of stations than the speed of fire spread in a structure. The nature of this fixed deployment strategy becomes even more problematic for medical responses as there tends to be far fewer ambulances in comparison to fire suppression apparatus.

A shortage of resources is therefore, a compounding problem. Ambulance response time goals often vary tremendously by locality and type of service. Response time goals become a result of compromise matching community expectations with financing – not the science of resuscitation. Often contracts with private services are drafted to simply improve on the current response times rather than meet an objective goal with a defined clinical outcome.

The clock is an easy measurement device that is more easily understood than many other proxy measures of the quality of our service. And pushing for more (faster) response makes a contract negotiator look like a winner. Unfortunately, there is a heavy cost to pay to chase these ever increasing goals. And for services who cannot meet these objectives, there is either embarrassment, financial ruin or the flexibility built in to the start and end times for the clock. In other cases, there are rules for simply ignoring exceptions to the goal as outliers. Without standards on measurement, why do it?

Trends are showing a higher demand for services which translates to an increased demand in resources which in turn raises system costs unnecessarily. Recent studies have also shown that response times do not improve clinical care in the vast majority of cases. In fact, there are a significant number of responses that don’t even require an ambulance at all. Proper emergency medical dispatching through improved triage at the call taking phase can reduce the effective number of emergent calls that demand immediate responses.

Finally, there is also a growing awareness lately to the safety of providers. Studies show that the use of lights and sirens are risking the lives of responders and even the public. Ambulances driving at excessive speeds for most calls is just illogical and unsafe.

I would like to thank Brandon Oto for issuing this writing challenge. Viewing a problem from a new perspective is quite a liberating opportunity. I believe that in this case, there clearly is still a good reason to debate the need for rapid responses. However, I will continue that debate in a follow-up article from my own perspective.

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