Charlottesville Fire Department releases annual report; CARS wants answers on new dispatch protocol

The Charlottesville Fire Department has released its annual report for the fiscal year that ended on June 2021. In the past year there is a new chief in Hezedean Smith, recruited 22 new firefighters, and boosted work in community risk reduction. There are 114 total employees in the fire department, including six civilians. There were 5,717 calls for service, with 2,105 of those for fire calls and 3,612 medical calls. 

A slide from the CFD’s annual report

Last week, the fire department issued a press release announcing a process change made in July called “proximity dispatch” where automatic vehicle locators and the global positioning system are used.  Council will have a work session on this change on September 20. 

“When an emergency prompts a 911 call, the region’s Emergency Communications Center activates an automated process that immediately finds the closest emergency resources,” reads the release. “Based on the proximity of the vehicles and the city’s roadway network, the emergency communication center dispatches the closest units.” 

At last night’s City Council, Dr. Forest Calland spoke out in objection to the new system. He’s a trauma surgeon at the University of Virginia Health system concerned that Charlottesville – Albemarle Rescue Squad (CARS) units are not being used efficiently. 

“The system that has been designed and implemented is not well-conceived,” Dr. Calland said. “Survival in an urban EMS system is inversely proportional to the number of paramedics that are deployed out in the city.” 

Later on in the meeting, CARS chief Virginia Leavell gave a specific example of how the new system is not working. There are a lot of acronyms in this soundbite to explain first. ALS stands for Advanced Life Support and offers advanced care for critical patients. BLS stands for basic life support. 

“On July 27, two fire engines and a CARS BLS ambulance were dispatched to an ALS level chest pain call because [Charlottesville Fire Department]’s ALS unit was on a BLS call and unavailable,” Leavell said. “CARS had three BLS ambulances in service and available within 1.2 miles of that BLS call at the time of dispatch.” 

Chief Leavell said CARS should be handling those basic calls. 

“The new dispatch protocol is an ineffective system in the city,” Leavell said. “It has not resulted in improved patient care. In fact it puts those at the highest risk in jeopardy.”

Leavell said she has attempted to meet with Fire Chief Smith but has not been able to do so. In this year’s budget cycle as well as the last, Leavell and others made the claim that the fire department was not holding up its end of a memorandum of agreement related to funding. 

“I raised the concern last year that I thought what was happening last year to the rescue squad and their budget was grossly unfair to them,” Snook said. “I’m concerned that this year —I don’t know the details but I would like to know more — I’m concerned that we appeared to be headed toward a situation where the present EMS providers to not value the contributions of the rescue squad, which has really been a beloved institution in this town for many, many years.” 

Remember that quote. We’re going to need it later on.

Later on in the meeting, Chief Smith was asked to comment. 

“Ultimately the enhancements that have been adopted are appropriate for the ten square miles in a city and it is used in other regions that provide EMS and fire services,” Smith said. “We don’t have to look far as it relates to proximity dispatch. Albemarle County right next to us has implemented proximity dispatch since 2016 or 2017. Proximity dispatch ensures that our residents and visitors get the closest appropriately staffed ambulance and or first response vehicles based on established national standards and best practices.” 

Smith said the changes have lowered response times to the Tenth and Page neighborhood. The conversation on September 20 will shed more light on what may become a legal issue. City Attorney Lisa Robertson said a meeting was to have been held between Chief Smith and CARS, but a string of correspondence from CARS attorney led to that being delayed. 

(This article originally appeared in the September 8, 2021 edition of Charlottesville Community Engagement)

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