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GCN : May 2015
GCN MAY 2015 • GCN.COM 23 HOUSTONFIREDEPARTMENT It seems as though ev- ery firefighter you ask in Houston can rattle off examples of 911 calls that didn’t even come close to being life-threatening. “A spider bite that’s two or three weeks old,” says Jeff Jacobs. “A headache or a laceration,” says Ashley Histand. Tyler Hooper sums it up: “Any- thing from simple colds to tooth- aches, stubbed toes to paper cuts.” The Houston Fire Department logged more than 318,000 incidents last year, but only 13 percent of them were fires. The rest were medi- cal calls, making a career in firefight- ing seem more like a career in health care. Hooper drives the busiest ambu- lance in the city, based in a southside firehouse three miles east of the old Astrodome. Last year, it answered more than 5,000 calls, and some of them were pretty frustrating, he says. “We make a lot of runs to where it’s not an emergency situation,” he says. ”And while we’re on that run, we hear another run in our territory. It could be a shooting or a cardiac arrest, and now an ambulance is coming from further away, and it’s extending the time for the true emergency to be taken care of.” Hooper says the area his ambu- lance serves has many lower-income residents who don’t have insurance. But even those who do have cover- age don’t always have a regular medical provider or a car to get to appointments. “They don’t know they could walk into certain clinics without ap- pointments or without insurance,” he says. Calling 911 is “just what they’ve always done or what they’ve been taught.” City officials hope to break that cycle with a program designed to connect those residents with a doc- tor in their homes, via the emergen- cy medical technicians and firefight- ers who answer the calls. On a recent morning, Hooper drove through the rain to answer a call at an apartment complex near William P. Hobby Airport. Susan Carrington, 56, sits on her couch in a red tracksuit, coughing and gasping. “Have you seen your doctor?” Hooper asks. Carrington shakes her head. “No? Okay,” Hooper says. Carrington doesn’t have a regular doctor. She called 911 because she got “scared.” It hurt to breathe, and the cough had been bad for four days, she says. In January, she had visited an emergency room for simi- lar symptoms and had been given an antibiotic for pneumonia. “Based on your vital signs, every- thing looks stable to us,” Hooper says. “Your lungs are clear, your blood pressure’s great, your pulse is good. Everything looks good.” Previously, Hooper might have taken Carrington to the emergency room, just to be safe. But now he has an alternative: a computer tablet loaded with a video chat application. He launches the app, and Dr. Ken- neth Margolis appears on the screen. He is seated in the city’s emergency management and 911 dispatch cen- ter, almost 20 miles away. Hooper swivels the laptop screen toward the couch, bringing doctor and patient face-to-face. “Ms. Carrington, I’m a doctor with the fire department,” Margolis begins. “So you’re having a cough and feeling weak and having some trouble breathing, is that right?” “Yes, sir,” Carrington says. “And it hurts when you breathe and cough?” “Yes.” City officials are cutting down on unnecessary emergency room visits by connecting residents with a doctor in their homes via a tablet- based video chat app BY CARRIE FEIBEL 0515gcn_022-024.indd 23 4/30/15 2:14 PM