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AS WE SEE IT: Think before you dial

Rick Loperfido, executive director of our county ambulance service, has a simple request for Carter County residents – think before you dial 911.

Loperfido noted during the last meeting of the Emergency Ambulance Board that the service is still short-staffed. They need another full-time paramedic, another full-time EMT, and they are having trouble attracting and retaining part-time workers as well. There are various reasons for this. Though their pay rate and benefits are better than most surrounding counties – according to Loperfido only Boyd County pays more – he said many part-time employees are only looking at the hourly rate when considering a job.

Fair compensation for paramedics and EMTs is another issue entirely, but the point here is the service is currently understaffed.

So, if you call 911 and ask for an ambulance because you have had leg pain for the last week, or because you bit down on something hard and chipped a tooth – both calls Loperfido said the service has received – you are tying up resources that might be needed to save a life during an automobile or farm accident.

There are two main reasons to call 911; life-threatening emergencies, such as a heart attack, stroke, or severe blood loss, or severe injuries that cause the patient to be immobilized with no other way to the emergency room. For that second category, think things like a broken leg or broken arm, with no one there to render assistance or give you a ride to the hospital.

If your injuries aren’t life threatening, and you have someone who can give you a ride to the hospital, Loperfido recommends that route. He recently broke his own arm – a compound fracture where the bone broke the skin – but instead of calling an ambulance he assessed his injury and had his wife drive him to the hospital.

Not everyone with a bone sticking out of their arm can or should try to drive themselves to the hospital, or wait for someone else to. It’s one of those situations where it would definitely be okay to dial 911 and request assistance, especially if you aren’t a trained professional like Loperfido. But a little self-triage can go a long way to helping make sure resources are still available when an emergency strikes.

A third example of when it might be okay to call 911 and request assistance is for mobility issues where no other resources are available. For instance, if someone falls in their home or garden and it isn’t the result of an emergency like a heart attack or stroke, and they have no broken bones, but need help getting up, emergency responders can help. Loperfido gave the hypothetical example of an elderly couple where a spouse isn’t strong enough to help their husband or wife up, and they have no nearby children or family to call.

In a triage system the urgency of this situation obviously falls lower on the scale than a roll-over accident with trapped victims, cardiac arrest, or a shooting or stabbing. But it’s still a legitimate reason to call for assistance.
We want to emphasize that Loperfido isn’t telling folks not to call 911 if they need it.

He is simply asking that they only use the service for issues where they need to go to the emergency room and have no other expedient means of getting there.

Issues like a broken tooth can wait until the next morning, when you can call your dentist.

Issues like chronic leg pain – that isn’t suddenly debilitating or escalating in intensity – are the sort of issues you should call and schedule an appointment with a general practitioner for.

This isn’t to say you should ignore what your body is telling you. If the dull pain you’ve been experiencing for weeks suddenly turns to intense, searing pain and is accompanied by other symptoms, or your fever suddenly spikes and you become delirious, by all means dial 911.

Otherwise, make an appointment with your general practitioner, consult your pharmacist, or visit an urgent care center.
The glut of people visiting emergency rooms for non-emergency issues also leads to longer waits for those who are experiencing legitimate emergency issues, so thinking before you call 911 can help with that as well.

Finally, if you have an appointment for that non-emergency issue, and you need transport, services like Northeast Community Action can help with transportation given advance notice – and for much cheaper than the cost of an ambulance ride. You may need to schedule your ride a couple of days in advance, but for minor issues that aren’t life-threatening this shouldn’t be a problem.

It’s a bit more complicated than dialing 911 and waiting for an ambulance to take you to the emergency room, but you will likely find you get better attention from a doctor who isn’t busy worrying about the guy bleeding out the next bed over. More importantly, waiting, when you can, might just help save that other guy’s life; something he and his family are sure to appreciate.

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