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EMS leader recounts medics’ harrowing week during freeze

Tuesday, July 20, 2021 by Amy Smith

First responders are still in recovery mode as they plan for the next severe weather event, such as the freeze that gripped Austin in mid-February, and any other unforeseen disaster that may occur.

“Our medics’ stories should be heard,” Austin EMS Association President Selena Xie told the City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Monday, providing members with a grimmer look at the challenges medics faced during Winter Storm Uri.

When temperatures dipped below freezing and power outages struck homes and businesses, call volumes increased dramatically, with the number of calls in one day triple the number received on the same day a year ago, increasing from 500 calls on Feb. 15, 2020, to 1,500 calls on the same day this year.

“At about 500 calls – that’s a pretty heavy call volume for us anyway, so for it to triple is basically unthinkable,” Xie said. “We had never seen anything like it. We had never had calls holding and we saw that quite a bit. The calls we were receiving were related to people being stranded, medical complications from losing power, and a lot of people were simply at their limit from being cold, even without having a medical emergency.”

After the storm, the association sent out a survey soliciting feedback from medics. The survey asked for personal stories, recommendations for planning for the future, and what the medics saw as the department’s strengths and weaknesses.

“It was very, very, challenging for our first responders to access patients as they tried to navigate icy roads, particularly roads with inclines. We had quite a few (ambulances) go into the ditches … because they had no idea where the road actually was,” Xie said.

One key takeaway was the medics’ realization of the staggering number of people who rely on electricity to survive, Xie continued. “We learned we had such a large medically vulnerable population in Austin that have oxygen, dialysis, methadone, and other power needs to keep them healthy and to stay outside of the hospital system.”

And hospitals aren’t immune to severe weather events either. Xie said some hospital emergency rooms started turning ambulances away, including one hospital that relies on water pressure to heat the building. “When the water pressure dropped, they actually closed (their doors) to us,” she said.

EMS also lost power and water to critical infrastructure. “We absolutely had medics who were going to the bathroom and using the kitty litter that firefighters have to put on top (of the waste). We know we’re supposed to have generators at a lot of our EMS/fire stations and those failed. And so, for us, what that meant is we couldn’t charge our radios, we couldn’t charge our monitor batteries (which) are probably the ones that provide the most important thing, which is to defibrillate patients, and that was very, very challenging to overcome.”

Some strengths identified in the survey were the results of the “reimagining public safety” conversations, leading Council to fully fund EMS’s paramedics hotline, which proved instrumental during the freeze, Xie said. Additionally, the newly created Office of the Chief Medical Officer used the expanded health paramedic force to provide a specific type of medication for people who couldn’t access dialysis treatment. “If you miss dialysis by more than two or three times, depending on your level of renal failure, it could be absolutely deadly. We did have one person die from missing dialysis,” Xie said, adding that the medication helped patients “buy themselves time until their next dialysis appointment.”

Another strength was the department extending preparation pay to medics so they could report to work the night before their shift to ensure their safe arrival. The communications team and StarFlight also performed heroically, said Xie, who also lauded the overall teamwork between EMS, fire and police personnel.

Weaknesses identified in the survey included the lack of communication or visibility in the field by top executives. Xie said EMS Chief Ernesto Rodriguez, who retired in May, was not communicating at all with the medics, prompting her to appeal to current Chief Jasper Brown to encourage Rodriguez “to send out a message to crews to buck them up and let them know we support you.”

In general, Xie said, “An overwhelming feeling our medics had was that they were alone and helpless while the department stood by in silence.”

Much of the department’s shortcomings can be attributed to a staffing shortage – there are currently 110 vacancies – as well as a lack of basic supplies and equipment needed for cold weather and other emergency conditions. Chief Brown said he expects to have the staffing gap filled by next year and that 33 medics began classes this week, with another 30 or so expected to start classes in January.

Council members on hand for the meeting indicated their interest in considering additional EMS funding when the new budget process begins in the coming weeks.

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