Saving lives: EMS response times plummet under Mayor Duggan’s watch

Detroit is beginning to send fire rigs to medical runs to reduce the historically sluggish response times.
Detroit is beginning to send fire rigs to medical runs to reduce the historically sluggish response times. By Steve Neavling/MCM

The chances of surviving a heart attack drastically decline after about 8 minutes without medical attention.

That’s why Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration set an ambitious goal to reduce the city’s notoriously slow response times to under 8 minutes for life-threatening calls – the gold standard for EMS priority calls.

Mayor Duggan
Mayor Duggan

When Mayor Duggan took office in January 2014, the average response time was a miserable 18 minutes. Since then, his administration has nearly halved the average time at 10 minutes and 30 seconds after putting more ambulances on the road, using new technologies and incorporating efficiencies.

In an effort to further reduce response times, the city this week began sending select firefighters to emergency medical runs, which is the practice in many cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Philadelphia.

A 2010 study of 300 fire departments found that firefighters were able to reach the scene of medical emergencies an average of three minutes faster because fire stations are more abundant and spread out.

The idea is to send trained firefighters and a paramedic in a fire rig to a medical emergency to help stabilize a patient until the ambulance arrives.

“This has been a topic of discussion in the Fire Department for 43 years; it took Mayor Duggan to make it happen,” said Executive Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins, who played a lead role in devising the plan.

Related: How Detroit plans to fix the Fire Department, but is it enough? 

The change couldn’t have happened sooner for a 64-year-old woman who stopped breathing following cardiac arrest at her home in Detroit on Wednesday morning.

Two firefighters and a paramedic were called to the woman’s house on the west side after she reportedly had a heart attack and wasn’t responding. The trio hopped in a fire rig – Squad 4 – and reached the scene in under 8 minutes. While they resuscitated the woman, an ambulance was still en route. It reached the scene at 7:24 a.m. – 11 minutes after the call.

Commissioner Jenkins said it’s “very possible” that the woman is alive today because of the new medical runs.

Detroit Fire Engine 56. By Steve Neavling/MCM
Detroit Fire Engine 56. By Steve Neavling/MCM

“Reducing emergency medical service response times will substantially increase the chance of survival for someone having a cardiac arrest, ” Jenkins said.

Because of delayed response times, “a majority of the nation’s 50 largest cities save only an estimated 6% to 10% of the victims of sudden cardiac arrest,” a USA Today survey found in 2005.

For Mayor Duggan, a former hospital executive, improving emergency response times has been a priority and a testament to his doggedness as an administrator. His team has wasted no time laying out the plans, a process that has taken some fire departments years to get off the ground.

In October, firefighters began getting trained and certified as medical responders. To ease the transition, the city plans to begin medical runs in two new fire companies every 30 to 40 days, Jenkins said. There are 43 companies.

Firefighters in the 5th Battalion (pictured here) are the first to make medical runs.  Via Google Maps.
Firefighters in the 5th Battalion (pictured here) are the first to make medical runs. Via Google Maps.

The Fire Department is starting with the 5th Battalion, which is pictured here and includes New Center, the Milwaukee Junction and Wayne State University.

It’s not going to be an easy transition. Detroit’s fire rigs are breaking down at alarming rates; firefighters are fatigued; and the city continues to lead the nation in arsons.

The Motor City Muckraker will continue to monitor the effectiveness of the medical runs as part of our yearlong examination of the fire department.

To stay updated on response times, visit the administration’s “Detroit Dashboard,” which posts the weekly average response times, among other information affecting residents’ quality of life.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

  • Dataninja

    Glad you didn’t say Duggan lowered the response times. Because, as you well know, it was the Emergency Manager that set things in motion to accomplish this.

  • lake_forest

    Bullshit junk data spun to pitch the narrative they want.

  • TheKayStore

    This is a step in the right direction, but the information is misleading people need to realize that these fire crews aren’t responding with paramedic equipment, even if there is a paramedic on the truck. They have only very basic medical equipment if any.

    Even if there happens to be a paramedic on the truck, without the advanced life support equipment (which the fire rigs aren’t licensed to carry) there is very little, if anything they can do for the majority of medical emergencies. They can provide basic CPR, but can’t treat the asthma attack, allergic reaction, the heart attack, diabetic emergencies, etc… Heck, they can’t even diagnose any of it without the proper tools.

    Long story short, the response time is better on paper, but you’re still not getting medicine or advanced medical treatment, or a ride to the ER any faster, you just have a few uniforms standing by your side to offer reassurance, and that’s the reality of it. In MOST cases, there is no benefit at all.

  • grant

    Detroit has a severely underfunded ambulance (EMS) service, even worse than the fire department. It’s unfortunate that more money for isn’t allocated for EMS and this band- aid solution is what is taking place.

    Unconscious and VSA calls, the fire department should be sent as those calls are time sensitive. However it should be noted that over 98% of all medical calls are not time sensitive and sending huge expensive and inefficient fire trucks are not in the best interest of the taxpayer and the patient.

    Unfortunately, we use response times as a gauge to judge how effective fire departments and EMS services are, however it should be noted response times are not a factor in, as stated before, the majority of medical calls. Memphis fire department has the fastest response times and most paramedics per capita and one of the worst cardiac arrest save rates in the country.

    With an ever increasing aging population, more paramedics will be needed. Not firefighters with basic medical training to “stop the clock”.