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Kansas City Ambulance Response Times Sometimes Slowed By Cell Phone Use

Kansas City Fire Department

The omnipresence of cell phones makes it easier and often quicker for people to report emergency situations.  But the cellular devices are a significant factor in ambulance response times that miss Kansas City's response time goal.

Actually, the city's ambulance service, operated by the Fire Department, performed well in April, according to a report submitted to the City Council Neighborhoods and Public Safety Committee.

Of nearly 6,500 calls for emergency service, 65 turned out to be classified as life-threatening emergencies.

For those 65, the average response time was just over 6 minutes.  The goal is 9 minutes or less.

But in 12 of the 65 calls, the nine minute goal was missed.

The average for the 12 was less than a half-a-minute over the goal, but as is often the case, the average does not tell the whole story.

Actually, according to Chief Chuck Zang, who presented the report, 10 of the over-goal responses missed the mark only by seconds, but two were several minutes late, which in some cases can mean the difference between life and death.

One of those cases represented a situation related to cell phone use.  Cell phones do not pinpoint their locations and people often do not know where they are – or where the emergency occurred.

Fire department staff members said a woman was house-sitting for her children when she suffered a medical emergency.  But she didn't know the address of the home.

Like many of us, she know how to get to a destination by driving from one landmark to the next, but never really paying attention to the streets, or even the exact address.

Ambulance dispatchers were able to estimate the location by analysis of cell phone data, but the estimate was not accurate. The correct house turned out to be behind the one identified – on the next street over.

Other problems with the disappearance of land-line phones is that even if cell phone data identifies the correct location it gives no hint as to what floor, apartment number or suite number the person is calling from if in an apartment building or office tower.

And even land-line phones can mislead.  If an organization such as a school district, university, local government or large business has its own phone switching apparatus, the land-line phone mayl be identified as located at the organization's exchange office.  Precise location may be provided, but setting the feature up is an added expense.

Sovis gave the council members what he said was the same advice he gave his own daughter: when going out for the evening or to a friend's house or any other location other than one's own home it makes sense to make a note of the address upon arrival, perhaps making a note of it with a cell phone app.

“Know the address,” he said, “the complete address – if it's 'north” (directional) or “northeast'. Because that will make a big difference in the responses.”

The other missed response goal in April was another frustrating circumstance that emergency responders sometimes encounter.  The seriousness of the emergency was underestimated by the person who reported it and then upgraded to the “life-threatening” category.   Before the second call, precious minutes had been lost.

Steve Bell is afternoon newscaster and business news reporter for KCUR.  He may be reached at 816-235-5173 or by e-mail as steveb@kcur.org

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