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‘Sierra calls’ create headaches for short-staffed first responders during non-emergency medical calls

WBTV Investigates: Sierra calls would include minor car crashes, fevers, headaches and other non-life-saving calls
Published: Nov. 2, 2021 at 5:52 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Charlotte Firefighters are waving a red flag about a new change to city policy in how first-responders are dispatched to medical calls.

The change was announced last week.

It creates a type of response being referred to as a “Sierra Call.”

WBTV Investigative Reporter David Hodges says the change comes as MEDIC struggles with staffing issues and to keep up with call volume.

When you dial 911 for an ambulance, many people are often surprised to see fire trucks respond to the scene first.

“Why is a fire department here? Well, because we can respond quicker,” said Timothy Bell, from the Charlotte Firefighter Association 6660.

Bell, secretary of the local firefighter union, says the recent change in their response procedures is already creating headaches and potentially dangerous situations.

“They told us that there’s the Sierra called protocol that it was going to be for non-emergency calls,”

Emergency responders have a tiered response system and Sierra is a new addition. Sierra calls would include minor car crashes, fevers, headaches and other non-life-saving calls.

The new Sierra Call policy requires Charlotte Fire to respond normally with lights and sirens, but the ambulance service MEDIC gets 30 minutes to arrive on-scene and doesn’t use lights and sirens.

However, Bell said within the first week of the policy, MEDIC crews were already arriving later than that.

“We had dozens of documented cases where fire crews were on scene waiting for upwards of 45-60, and in some cases, 75 minutes for an ambulance to get here,” Bell said.

“Right now, our compliance with Sierra calls is 96 percent,” said Dr. Jonathan Studneck, MEDIC Deputy Director. “So, I mean, that’s kind of a disconnect for me. We wouldn’t be able to meet those targets if we weren’t dispatching ambulances.”

Dr. Studnek said the policy was approved by the local medical control board, and in late October, MEDIC got the Charlotte Fire Department to sign on.

“It’s our responsibility to determine if they need a very rapid response or if they need someone to show up at their house and help them navigate the health care system, and the Sierra Protocol allows us to take time, understand people’s needs, and respond to their needs appropriately and help them,” Dr. Studnek said.

MEDIC has determined there are roughly 25,000 of these Sierra calls per year.

But Bell says the procedure for Charlotte Fire to leave these calls as they wait for MEDIC is cumbersome and could impact their response times to bigger emergencies.

The change comes as MEDIC continues to grapple with a staffing shortage.

The agency currently has a 10 percent vacancy rate.

“Whether it’s here at MEDIC Hospital systems throughout the country or other EMS agencies, yes, we must recover from the pandemic and it’s going to take some time,” Dr. Studnek said. “But having the foresight that we’ve had to build systems in place where we can assess patient need puts us in a good position to navigate the next several years while we recover from decreased staffing and other issues that the pandemic has created.”

While the Charlotte Fire Department has already signed on, other departments across the county tell WBTV Investigates they still have questions about how it will work.

Bell says he has questions about why it’s already adopted by Charlotte Fire.

“We still haven’t had anything from command staff on whether they’re going to pursue it,” Bell said.

WBTV Investigates reached out to Charlotte Fire to ask about some of the concerns firefighters have with the new policy.

In a statement, a spokesperson for CFD wrote:

“There’s concern that firefighters will be on medical emergencies longer than usual, and we are evaluating the response policy change that has been in effect for less than 2 weeks at this point.”

“We will continue to respond to all emergencies with a goal of arriving within 6 minutes or less from receipt of the 9-1-1 phone call. This particular response change will continued to be reviewed.”

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