Live 5 News Investigates: Local EMS using technology to predict emergencies

Live 5 News Investigates: Local EMS using technology to predict emergencies

CHARLESTON COUNTY, SC (WCSC) - Minutes seem like hours when you are waiting for an ambulance. Every second that ticks by could mean the difference between life and death.

That's why Charleston County EMS is using technology to place ambulances around the county so crews can reach you faster.

"Anything can happen anywhere. I've learned that much," Maggie Hartman said. She and Mallory Lewis are in  their ambulance, waiting for a call.  But they're not at an EMS station.  Instead they are waiting in a gas station parking lot.

"Here at 26 and Montague, we're not usually here, I mean ten minutes to thirty minutes," Hartman said. 

As they wait, they can hear the traffic on the nearby highway, but it's not a car accident they're called to.  Their next emergency call takes them to a nearby neighborhood.  Their ambulance sets into motion, with lights and siren. 

Charleston County has more than 1,100 square miles to cover, so the county uses a computer program to tell them where to place this ambulance to best protect you any time, any day of the year, wherever you may be.

"People are moving in cars, going to school and work and coming home from work, stopping at restaurants, so we do relocate ambulances based on the flow of people, the population, the time frame," Charleston County EMS Director Don Lundy says.

Lundy says the program looks at four years of EMS data, in four-hour increments, and predicts where ambulances will likely be needed based on that history.  The idea is the ambulance will be close enough when seconds count.

"And I would have to say it's spooky, spooky good," Lundy says.

On the computer screen at headquarters, each ambulance is surrounded by purple, which designates the area each can reach in about eight minutes. A gauge in the corner tells Lundy 85 percent of Charleston County is covered in that life-saving time frame.

Meanwhile, on the computer screen inside the ambulance, the program is mapping the shortest route to the emergency. The system indicates a nearby fire station, and that North Charleston firefighters are responding, too.

"So we'll see who gets there first," Hartman said.

"We're getting people faster, we're getting their emergencies taken care of in a more efficient manner," Lewis says.

Lundy agrees that response time has improved.

"It shortened it about a minute and a half," Lundy says. "A minute and a half doesn't sound like much unless you're having chest pain and a minute and a half is forever."

There are challenges to the system, Lundy says.  He explains the far ends of the county, McClellanville and Edisto, may not have much call data. And, if 65 percent of the ambulances are on calls, their resources are stretched, he said.

But that's not the case for the emergency call Mallory and Lewis are working. They transport their patient to the hospital, and once they walk out the ER doors, the computer program will place them where they're needed next. 

It could be an emergency only blocks away.

“That's why we're here, that's the exciting part of the job,” Hartman said.

Charleston County handled more than 55,000 emergencies last year.  They protect an area that includes seven islands and eight bridges, and get to you on average, under eight minutes, 15 seconds.

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