FAQ #3

Q: Why do crews sometimes appear to be laughing and joking on calls? It does not seem very professional.

A: First and foremost, most of the calls are so stupid that it requires no intervention. As a comparison, no one expects taxi drivers to do anything but drive safely to the destination.

A small minority of calls, however, are indeed stressful in many different ways. A very sick person. An injured child. An extraordinary asshole insulting us the entire time. A combative fuckhead who wrestles with a half dozen responders. Add those to such routine stress as our stupid bosses and idiot co-workers and unrealistic oversight agencies, and it can really drag you down.

For most of us, our world is a small world, and calls are social events in a sense. We see old classmates and friends we haven’t seen in years. We see people with whom we used to suffer through shifts. We see those we don’t like but, after all, we let bygones be bygones. So imagine the 4 or 6 of us showing up on scene when someone cries wolf – it’s a great time to catch up when there’s nothing to do.

In addition, we naturally understand the harmful effects of stress and we don’t need a scientific paper to know that. What better time to de-stress a little than on stupid calls?

Six times a shift

I know this is going to go nowhere because our bosses are scared of dipshit patients and scumbag lawyers, but as a thought exercise, why is it that fire crews can choose to not respond to repeat alarms and cops can choose to not respond to chronic calls and non-injury wrecks while we go to every single one of our frequent calls? And unlike them, we usually, stupidly, go lights and sirens too. Obviously the cops and the firefighters can decide at the field level what is and what isn’t an legitimate emergency, but we can’t?

We went to the same street corner 6 times in one shift because the resident homeless guy with a movement disorder likes to lie on the ground occasionally when he’s not being handed money, and motorists are apparently too fucking busy NOT paying attention to their driving and instead dialing 911.

I suppose I should just be glad that he leaves at night.

Is MPDS really unreliable or do I just work in a shitty zone?

“M10, this is a Delta response for a 25-year-old male who is complaining of feeling shaky after drinking 4 Red Bulls.”

Or is it the people who specify whether the response is Code 2 or 3 who should re-think their policies?

Ever wonder just how accurate dispatch information is? What dying person are we driving to with lights and sirens? I happen to have 232 calls to show you. This is a relatively small sample size, but the data collection is ongoing. By the time I get bored, I may have a thousand calls logged. We’ll talk about the details in a second.

Thanks to this neat and simple graph-making tool at the National Center for Education Statistics, here are some of the numbers expressed in pie charts. Yes, it is for kids. A simple tool for a simple fool.

In June 2011, I wrote in total disbelief about how the CDC and ACEP claimed that only 8 percent of ED patients were considered “non-urgent,” the lowest level of acuity under their classification, which by extension meant 92 percent of patients should be seen within 2 hours.

That’s a weird classification, to put it nicely.

That very week, a quick tally of 19 patients resulted in me (and most normal providers, I’m sure) subjectively labeling 12 of them – 63 percent – “non-urgent,” as defined by normal English usage.

Over the past several years, as more agencies adopt the ubiquitous MPDS, I have noticed that the overtriage* based on common response models is quite significant. For those of you who aren’t familiar with MPDS, in the interest of keeping this post short, its main goals are to sensibly dispatch the appropriate type and amount of responders (or not dispatch anything at all) to medical calls based on pre-arrival information and to quickly sort out and dispatch units to the cardiac arrest calls. Think taxis for the least-serious Omegas and Alphas, and anyone with an AED for the non-breathing Echoes. One main feature of MPDS is that the determinants (Omega, Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo) are set based on RPs’ responses to predetermined dispatch questions while individual jurisdictions are free to customize their response models (Code 2, Code 3, first response only, ambulance only, both, etc.) to the determinants. I like San Francisco’s old bus token idea.

For instance, for the data that I’ve collected, responses to Omegas and Alphas are Code 2, the rest are Code 3. This is a fairly common setup in other jurisdictions.

In the United States, because the typical staffing configuration in most emergency response jurisdictions only consists of engines, trucks and ambulances, and because the typical disposition options with which most oversight agencies (and their lawyers) are comfortable are “transport” and “no transport,” in practical terms, the only real noticeable result is the increase in Code 2 responses in place of the riskier yet not more fruitful Code 3 responses, which isn’t a bad thing. It just doesn’t go far enough.

Judging by the details involved in the implementation of EMS systems as well as MPDS, there are plenty of signs out there that even many EMS jurisdictions and the people who think they know enough to make decisions do not understand the purpose of MPDS, which is exacerbated by the fact that most administrators have absolutely no or pathetically little time working in actual field-level EMS capacities, but this seems to be the norm and not something that will go away anytime soon.  It’s the Dilbert principle as applied to EMS.

A common way jurisdictions misuse MPDS is how they use determinants to establish response time standards. For example, 20 minutes to Alphas, 15 to Bravos, 12 to Charlies, 10 to Deltas, 8:15 to Echoes.

Really? With the exception of Echoes, I’m wondering if this is set up for the sole purpose of generating fines for late responses. Based on what I’ve seen and done, there is no way anyone can convince me a Delta is 2 minutes more serious than a Charlie, and a Bravo is 5 minutes more serious than an Alpha.

Worse, units get re-directed from Bravos to Charlies, Charlies to Deltas, etc. This is colossally stupid. The only diversions should be to Echoes.

We once were dispatched to a Bravo for someone who fell off a horse on the outskirts of town, and nearly 10 minutes into the call, less than a half mile from it, we were re-routed to a Delta for chest pain on the other side of town because we were the closest unit. I tried to insist on continuing to the Bravo but was overruled by dispatch. We turned around, and after about 6 minutes, we were canceled by fire, implying total bullshit. We then were put back on the Bravo since we were still the closest unit, and drove back to the original call. There were several factors at play here, but none of them was common sense.

Anecdotally, my co-workers are quite often upset when they are dispatched Code 2 to a call and they find a patient legitimately sick. Frankly, I’m not much bothered by this. There has not been any substantial evidence demonstrating the benefits of shorter response times (or transport times) in the form of clinical outcome in any cases other than salvageable out-of-hospital cardiac arrest. On the other hand, I am more unhappy about being dispatched Code 3 to a call and finding some complete bullshit. There certainly have been plenty of actual negative outcomes of unwarranted Code 3 responses, usually in the form of wrecks. This is not an easy problem to solve for the simple fact that (a) callers are notoriously unreliable and sometimes downright dishonest, and (b) it is difficult to definitively determine (a) over the phone.


  • Quantify patient acuity as determined by MPDS and response modes
  • Evaluate patient acuity as observed on scene
  • Compare the related distributions

Initially there were suggestions to include information on first responders’ (or lack of) actions and interventions. I did not include this because ultimately this project was about MPDS and response modes. We hardly ever went to any good calls, and I spent most of my time writing paperwork and not providing any treatment anyway, so I can hardly expect first responders to provide any treatment either, let alone single them out for the lack of treatment.

I also did not include details on interventions. The main reason is that there simply aren’t many interventions to record. Seriously, look at the shit calls we went to. Besides, I think that subjective acuity is sufficient to express the disparity between MPDS, response modes and actual disposition.

Inclusion criteria:

All 911 calls for medical assistance during which a patient presenting with a complaint of illness or injury is found.

Exclusion criteria:

  • Canceled en route
  • Canceled on scene by first unit on scene
  • Unable to locate
  • No complaint of illness or injury
  • Psych holds and self-committals

As you well know, these incidents make up a sizable portion or our responses. I did not record the numbers, and sometimes I wish I did. Every canceled or excluded call means that any response was for the most part unnecessary in the first place. As for the psych calls, well, what a waste of time and resources**, from the perspective of 911 ambulances. If it’s not some guy who wants a place to crash and a sandwich to eat, it’s another guy who’s going for the fourth time this week because he’s “going to kill himself” again. If it’s not those guys, then it’s the guy who’s trying to get out of an arrest, and he knows how to play the system. If you didn’t actually hang yourself or legitimately slice your wrists down the bone or ingested 230 pills, psych calls are absolutely not 911 ambulance calls. When are we going to grow a spine and make the cops take the psych calls?


Of the information recorded, some of the relevant data are used:

  • MPDS card, determinant, subcode
  • Response mode
  • Chief complaint as reported to the call-taker
  • Chief complaint on scene, provider impression and relevant information
  • Poor historian(s)
  • Drugs
  • ETOH
  • Psychiatric component
  • Frequent 911 caller
  • Subjective acuity
  • Disposition

Subjective acuity is categorized into “Very Minor,” “Minor,” “Urgent” and “Emergent.” It’s just what I decided to label these patients, based on their presentation, their history, my experience and common sense. Their meanings are very plain. It is nothing like what the CDC and ACEP did. In all of these cases, my subjective acuity was broadly in agreement with how the ED decided to manage them, in terms of resources assigned. The EDs use triage categories more in line with what the CDC and ACEP use than my subjective ones, but in many instances this has more to do with theory than practice. For example, “chest pain” may automatically be triaged as something more serious even if it’s been ongoing “for 2 years.” As nosy as I am, I made quite some effort to follow up unofficially just to see what patients ended up with. I don’t remember any ED finding something that made a patient more acute than I rated, but if that happens in the future, I fully intend to adjust the subjective acuity I assign a patient.

To give you a better idea of this so-called subjective acuity, while dependent on specific cases and presentations, and not absolute, here are some examples:

Very Minor – no complaint, toothache, not feeling well for days, obvious death, etc.

Minor – abdominal pain, vomiting, anxiety, s/p seizure, etc.

“Urgent” and “Emergent” are self-explanatory and do not interest me much since they are not the source of our collective aggravation, anger, eye-rolling and dash-pounding.

I also want to point out that the main description of these subjective categories is best defined by the most reasonable and least self-centered way to go to the ED. For example, a few years ago when I ended up needing emergency surgery, I found a ride. Just because someone ends up being diagnosed with a legitimate entity doesn’t mean at the time this person called 911 it was absolutely necessary for us to respond Code 3. In fact, far from it. Studies typically use discharge diagnosis as the typical measure of patient acuity, because it is objective. However, I think there is some value in using such subjective measures as providers’ impressions. Seriously, how often do we get patients who elicit, from EMS to RN to PA to MD, a continuous chain of eye-rolling, accompanied by, “This is bullshit.”?

Findings (no shit, Sherlock):

  • MPDS and common response models produce significant overtriage
  • Large majority of 911 calls for medical assistance are mind-numbingly routine
  • Please keep all of this in mind when you drive to a call

Less obvious findings (based on this relatively small sample size):

  • Alphas tend to be quite accurately triaged
  • The ratios of Very Minor/Minor to Urgent/Emergent are quite similar in Bravos, Charlies and Deltas, implying there is no practical difference in these determinants. Given that most jurisdictions dispatch different equipment traveling in different modes to scenes depending on whether it’s Bravo, Charlie or Delta, and given that units are often re-directed from Bravos to Charlies and Charlies to Deltas, this seems pointless. I think we’re dicing these calls too fine by differentiating between Bravos, Charlies and Deltas.
  • Charlies and Deltas have similar respective breakdowns to the overall breakdown in acuity.
  • Deltas include all the “unknown medicals,” “non-triaged medicals,” PD requests, etc. The lack of information automatically makes these calls Deltas, but there were very few legitimate patients found as a result of these dispatches. This makes no sense when contrasted with medical alarms, which usually have no information as well, and are basically “indoor unknown medicals.” These calls are automatically categorized as Bravos, but they are in essence no different from the Deltas.
*Other overtriages: Patients who meet trauma center criteria and the use of spinal immobilization, but those are entirely separate posts.
**Some years back when we were self-reporting call data on Scantron forms on every single call, I took it very seriously because they’d give us our numbers at the end of the year. One year I think I went to more than 1400 calls, and the most common chief complaint I had marked was “Behavioral/Psychiatric” at 12% of all complaints. “Shortness of Breath” was second at 11%. That should have been a huge red flag as far as 911 ambulance utilization is concerned. But obviously nothing has changed.

Big talkers

A bit like the people who like to claim to be veterans, in particular Navy SEALs, there are plenty of posers amongst us here in the world of emergency services.

As a quick example of the typical spiel, consider what a know-it-all ACLS or PALS (I really don’t remember, or care) re-cert instructor said one day:

“I used to run so many calls in [insert busy, violent urban area], and that’s how we did things.”

“Um, no, you were on permanent disability when I started at the same place, and that was [insert a long time] ago. People tell me you worked maybe 6 months.”

As someone with a fair amount of time in the same position at the same agency who doesn’t really “network” with every single person, I often get to work with newer, much newer people, whose eyes I can feel sizing me up the instant they show up to work, wondering if they have time on me, since I have always kept a low profile. It’s kinda fun to let them think I’m new, which is really not that hard, since I say little, and look neither salt and pepper nor physically imposing. Sometimes I finish the shift without giving anything away.

They confidently probe, “How long have you worked here?”

“[Insert a long time].”

Awkward! Now shut up and drive! And drive smoothly. And don’t get lost. And don’t disturb me with diarrhea of the mouth while I read. And keep that fucking music down.

Which brings me to my favorites – people who like to claim more years than they really have, and the EMTs who like to claim to be medics.

Even though I may not talk to everyone, our world is very small, everyone knows someone, and there are no secrets like that, silly. For God’s sake, seniority lists are posted on the stupid bulletin boards just behind you. I’m dumb, but I’m not that dumb that I can’t match your ID badge to something on those lists.


I’m anti-social

Partner: How are the continuing education talks that [insert provider] puts on?

Me: They’re OK if you need hours. Definitely not earth-shattering. Haven’t seen many interesting topics. It’s at a restaurant, and the food’s not that good.

Partner: What about the networking? Do a lot of people from different agencies show up? I want to get my face out there.

Me: [Snort] Umm… I don’t go to these things to talk to people…

Don’t waste our time

One of the most annoying things about this line of work is the endless stream of useless and pointless training. With such outfits as TargetSafety and Ninth Brain, just to name two, becoming commonplace, administrators and managers (read: people who do not do our work at the street level, if they even did it at all in the past) are assigning crews online courses after online courses for continuing education, most of them absolutely a waste of time.

Just the other day I had to spend a whole hour (mandated via timer) on heat emergencies. It’s fucking winter.

FAQ #1

Q: I called an ambulance because my tummy hurt. Why did you send a fire truck too? Everyone seems to be just standing around…

A: First of all, that one out there happens to be a fire engine.

Without getting into all kinds of geeky details, when plans were being drawn up decades ago, simply put, EMS was meant to be used for REAL medical problems that required very quick responses and lots of hands on scene. For instance, if you suddenly drop dead, that’s when EMS is at its most efficient and (hopefully) effective. If you’ve ever worked a salvageable cardiac arrest, it is obvious to any moron with half a brain that it is a very labor-intensive process requiring a lot of people.

Thus, in a typical ideal scenario, a fire apparatus, usually an engine dispatched from one of the strategically located (lots of history behind this) fire station, provides critical first response, such as early CPR and early defibrillation, and an ambulance provides paramedic-level transport.

At least, that is the intention.

That EMS now appears to be complete overkill is very much the result of the absolute stupidity of those using EMS and not so much the intention of system designers. In other words, the perceived inefficiency of EMS is due more to its misuse/abuse than to its design. We appear to not do anything important (subjectively) precisely because people do not call us for anything important (objectively).

However, just because people call us for all kinds of stupidity doesn’t mean we can reduce staffing; some people still call us for some really serious stuff. Just because no one went into cardiac arrest today doesn’t mean we can reduce staffing tomorrow. (The politicians, ever so wise, love this one – “You guys don’t do anything.” and “It won’t affect response times.”) We’re here for the bad things that MAY happen. Remember that when you feel like opening your stupid mouth and saying something when I’m getting a cup of fucking coffee.

In conjunction with public education – admittedly done poorly, so far – the system must be built to accommodate the huge amount of stupid calls, lest the legitimate patients suffer the consequences of EMS misuse/abuse.

Lastly, tummy pain? Next time drive your own ass to the hospital.