The way medical emergencies get handled in Pinellas County is changing. Soon dispatchers will question 911 callers to gauge how serious the situation is and ensure a proportionate response.
The County Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to begin what's called "priority dispatch" in April. Officials said they would start slowly and not begin tweaking responses until summer.
In critical cases, priority dispatch won't delay responses, officials say, though in less severe emergencies it will take longer for help to arrive.
The move is a key step in the planned overhaul of the county's emergency medical response system, which many leaders fault as redundant, wasteful and unsustainable.
The system, in which a county property tax pays for paramedics and rescue vehicles managed by Pinellas' 19 fire rescue districts, is facing an $18 million budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year.
Currently, both a fire-rescue vehicle and an ambulance respond to medical 911 calls before an attempt has been made to determine whether callers are confronting a life-threatening emergency or an ankle sprain.
Chuck Freeman, the county's 911 systems manager, said the generous response goes overboard too often, wasting money and tying up units on routine calls so they're not available for critical ones.
"It really should have taken place years ago," Freeman said of the move to priority dispatch, standard in most jurisdictions.
After verifying a 911 caller's location, a priority dispatcher asks what happened. If the caller describes a severe situation, for instance mentioning drowning or hanging, units are sent before any more questions are asked.
Roughly 0.3 percent of medical 911 calls in Pinellas fall into this dire "echo response" category. Freeman said in such cases, priority dispatch won't lengthen response times.
In situations not as immediately life-threatening, dispatchers ask a set of uniform questions to assess the crisis. Depending on the situation, Freeman said questioning could add 20, 30 or 40 seconds to a response time.
Brett Patterson, an academic and standards researcher for the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch, used to work in the Pinellas system and agreed with Freeman that it's time the county moved to priority dispatch.
"When you run that ambulance and rescue with lights and sirens on somebody who isn't circling the drain," he said, "then what happens when you get that heart attack call?"
Will Van Sant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4166.