EMS in the Hot Zone: Not so Fast

Yesterday I attended the 17th Annual Rao R. Ivatury Trauma Symposium hosted by VCU Health. I took away multiple “nuggets” to incorporate into both my prehospital and ED practice. The conference is geared towards anyone taking care of trauma patients – not just doctors but nurses, social workers, nutritionists, therapists and EMS providers, too. I highly recommend checking it out next year. Save the date: Wednesday, March 29, 2017.

Always a leader in EMS advancement, members of the Richmond Ambulance Authority (RAA) presented a poster on delivering “Good Medicine in Bad Places.” To the credit of RAA, they have developed a council with their partners in Police and Fire, to address regional response needs to unique and dangerous situations (i.e. active shooters, bombers, terrorist attacks). The data they presented is accurate – the number of incidents is rising, and the fatalities climbing.

Tactical Combat Casualty Care (TCCC) is specialized training that originated in the military. TCCC is currently being tested and studied in the civilian public safety setting. The TCCC conversation is an important one. Specialized training for these situations is an unfortunate necessity in the United States. A little background info on how these things are currently handled – most cities have specialized SWAT Medic teams comprised of talented, elite individuals adept at not only the delivery of prehospital medicine, but also in things like shooting, hand to hand combat and law enforcement. These providers are a special breed – in most cases considered the best of the best in their public safety organizations. I’ve been hearing the rumble and chatter over the last year, and it was again echoed by RAA yesterday. There is current shift in conversation towards training 100% of EMS providers to enter the warm and hot zones, to render care to patients while under fire.

It’s well known and proven that the current model of Fire/EMS waiting to enter scenes causes treatment delays that increase patient morbidity and mortality. In the December 2015 issue of the Journal of Emergency Medicine, Peter Pons of the Hartford Consensus commented that “fire/rescue and EMS personnel must work with law enforcement agencies to enter these scenes earlier than has been traditionally performed, intervene promptly to stop ongoing external hemorrhage, and incorporate basic concepts of tactical combat casualty care/tactical emergency casualty care into their education, training, and practice.” I don’t disagree with that, but I’m not sure it makes sense for us to immediately assume ALL Fire and EMS personnel should be entering scenes with active shooters – as if it’s simply one more bullet point we can just tack onto the job description.

If you think about our existing public safety system, some firefighters enjoy both patient care and fighting fire, while others if given the choice, would only ever fight fire. Similarly, some Fire and EMS providers might be part cop/soldier at heart – both capable and interested in taking on TCCC. I can assure you that not everyone on an ambulance has that police/soldier side that wants to run into an active shooter scene. Yes, EMS is a dangerous job; I’ve been punched and had a knife drawn on me in the back of the ambulance (no one tell my Mom please). Of course you can never predict what may happen and need to be ready for anything. That’s not what I am talking about in this instance. What I’m saying is that if a call goes out for an active shooter, it might not be wise to require 100% of the Fire and EMS personnel to be able to enter that active scene. Here are just a few reasons I think that could be a bad idea.

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Figure 1: Crossover of skills/interests in various professional fields

Negative Effects on Recruitment

As I mentioned, not all EMS providers want to take on the police/military type role of being armed with a weapon, entering dangerous scenes and providing care under fire. I don’t know how big of a chunk of people that is, as it hasn’t been surveyed yet to my knowledge. I can say personally, having been in a building with an active shooter, I have zero interest in doing so again, even with the most state of the art training. How many of the 840,000 certified EMS in the US might we lose if that bullet point gets added to the job description? Additionally, 22% of those 840,000 certified EMS personnel are volunteers. Some volunteers might want to play a part in TCCC, but if you have a family and derive no paycheck or medical benefits from your volunteer EMS gig, can you really afford to enter that scene? And what will become of all the career providers who want to do patient care, but don’t want to risk their lives. Perhaps we will we see them shift into the hospital in ED Tech, CNA and RN roles.

Distraction Away from the Medicine

Even right now, EMS education has two large components: 1) the medicine, taking vital signs, deciding what drugs to give and when and 2) operational aspects, entering a scene safely, driving an emergency vehicle, operating a portable radio, etc. As an ED Physician, I admit my bias towards the importance of #1. We’ve all had the trainee who wants to drive lights and sirens before he’s mastered taking a blood pressure. With only ~160 hours of instruction in the current NREMT course, I worry that adding the required training for TCCC will shift focus away from the medicine and negatively impact patient care, potentially leading to more morbidity and mortality across all patients, improving outcomes for those victims requiring TCCC, but leading to a net decline in overall care. Perhaps the solution will be increasing the course length. I’m not saying it can’t be done; I just hope someone studies and considers that before implementing blanket curriculum changes.

Are EMS Providers Physically Fit Enough?

Sadly, three quarters of active emergency responders in the US are overweight or obese, and 75% have been diagnosed as hypertensive or prehypertensive. All in all, we are not a healthy bunch when compared to our counterparts in Police, Fire and the military. How many EMS providers will meet the physical demands required for TCCC? Even if people want to take part in TCCC, will they meet the physical requirements to do it safely, or perhaps be pushed out of a job they love, despite providing excellent medical care.


Would it actually improve care?

To justify the risk associated with TCCC, you must be able to prove that more lives would be saved than lost, and not just during active TCCC situations, but across prehospital care as a whole. It just hasn’t been studied yet. Perhaps once studied, it will prove to be net beneficial, but right now we just don’t know.

So those are my thoughts; I’m curious to hear yours.