Residents often are confused when a firetruck shows up after they've called for an ambulance.
That confusion, however, can turn into appreciation in a life-threatening situation.
Beaufort County fire departments and emergency medical services have an agreement that calls for dispatching both a firetruck and ambulances on medical calls. Firefighters in the county have at least a basic level of emergency medical training -- they can perform CPR and take vitals. Some are certified as paramedics and have much of the same training as EMS personnel.
The agreement is meant to ensure quicker response to emergencies. Beaufort County EMS has only nine ambulances to cover all of Bluffton, Okatie and northern Beaufort County, while the fire departments have 16 stations and more vehicles and manpower. Hilton Head Island operates its own EMS and fire departments.
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Often, firefighters arrive at a medical call before an ambulance and can start treatment while waiting for paramedics to arrive.
Ambulances sometimes can spend more than an hour on a single call if a patient needs to go to a Savannah hospital, EMS director Donna Ownby said. If one area of the county is busier, vehicles from other districts fill in so "there's always an available ambulance," she said.
Firefighters can help patients and move to other calls in as few as 20 minutes because they don't spend time transporting patients to hospitals, Bluffton Township Fire District spokesman Randy Hunter said.
It's not unusual for ambulances to get calls at the same time, Hunter said, so his department's ability to handle some emergency calls is important.
The extra help is particularly important for medical emergencies such as cardiac arrests, when seconds count.
"Both our goals are to provide the best treatment," Ownby said of EMS and the fire departments. "If you're the one sitting, waiting for someone to show up, it's a good feeling to have a medical person show up sooner."
Ownby said EMS and the fire departments have responded to about 50 cardiac arrests since September.
When EMS calls aren't for life-or-death situations, the arrival of several units may seem like an over-reaction. Both EMS and the fire departments agree, however, that it's better to have too many personnel responding than too few.
"If we get there and (the call) is worse than we thought, it's better if there's more manpower there," Hunter said.
Firefighters often help lift stretchers, hold IVs or provide an extra driver so both paramedics in the ambulance can work with a patient in back.
"It's not always because we're needed for life support," Hunter said. "It's grunt work, too."
Follow reporter Anne Christnovich at twitter.com/IPBG_CrimeNOB.