CLEARWATER — In April, the fire department kicked off a pilot program to test a new method to handle a persistent rise in emergency medical calls.
Now, it's likely the SUV packed with medical equipment will become a permanent presence in downtown Clearwater after the trial produced promising results.
The SUV, called a "peak unit," was designed to respond to medical emergencies during hours that experience a higher-than-usual call load in order to free up other vehicles, such as fire engines and ladder trucks, for bigger emergencies. The Clearwater Fire & Rescue Department tried out the unit in two locations: downtown in April and on the east side of the city along the U.S. 19 corridor in May.
Both units responded to a lot of calls, said Chief Scott Ehlers: 196 downtown and 155 on the east side. But the downtown unit had stronger results and will likely receive funding from Pinellas County starting Oct. 1.
"This sort of was the sweet spot that we found here," Ehlers said.
County officials agreed, said Jim Fogarty, director of safety and emergency services. The county, which contracts with fire departments for emergency medical service, proposed adding about $250,000 to Clearwater's contract next year and the year after to cover the costs of the unit. The contract still has to go before the City Council and County Commission for approval.
Clearwater has seen an increase in EMS calls of 4 to 5 percent each year over the last five years, Ehlers said. That number is even higher — about 10 to 15 percent — from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. downtown, which is when the peak unit ran Tuesday through Friday during the trial. Ehlers attributes that to an influx of county, medical and other workers coming into the downtown core during business hours.
Over the course of April, the unit cut down on EMS calls for other response vehicles on the west side of Clearwater when compared to the same month in 2016. The fire engine in Fire Station 45 on Court Street saw the most dramatic decrease: about 35 percent, according to data Ehlers provided. Other units saw decreases between about 5 and 25 percent.
The east side's results weren't as consistent, but the department will continue to try different times to find the "sweet spot" for that part of the city, Ehlers said.
Department officials will work with the Clearwater Fire Fighters Association to figure out the best way to staff the SUV, which has room for two people.
Sean Becker, the association president, called the peak unit "a Band-Aid on a leaking bucket." An ideal solution would be more 24/7 staffing, but he acknowledged that would be an expensive undertaking.
"Every little bit helps," he said. "But it's not an overall fix to the increase in call volume."
Both Fogarty and Ehlers acknowledged that reality as well. Fogarty said the county is starting to focus its efforts on public education to try to prevent the medical emergency in the first place. In the meantime, departments will have to rely on deploying existing resources to help the problem.
"This is one solution," Ehlers said of the peak unit. "If I knew the real solution, I'd be a millionaire."
Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow @kathrynvarn.