Sugar Land, Fort Bend EMS teams work to improve services

Sugar Land, Fort Bend EMS teams work to improve servicesOver the past year, the Emergency Medical Services departments of both the city of Sugar Land and Fort Bend County have successfully reduced response times, an indication the split between the city and county earlier this year was a move in the right direction.

With a growing city and county, however, both EMS departments realize current resources will only get them so far, which is why Fort Bend County EMS will be adding new positions with its nearly $13 million budget for fiscal year 2016-17. Sugar Land EMS will experience an increased call volume once Greatwood and New Territory are annexed in the coming years, and the department is ready to request additional resources if needed.

Sugar Land, Fort Bend EMS teams work to improve servicesAs of Jan. 1, the city of Sugar Land launched its own EMS program with three full-time units designed to decrease ambulance response times and improve the delivery of emergency medical services within the city. When the city created its own EMS service, the move allowed the two Fort Bend County EMS units previously stationed within the city to be deployed elsewhere in the county, which has helped the county improve its ambulance response times and improve its services throughout the county. 

“We had two units stationed within the [city] limits of Sugar Land and when they took over back in January, [those units] were moved out to other locations in the county,” said Victor Temple, Fort Bend County director of emergency medical services. “Both were strategic [moves] in that we are able to cover more call volume and have been able to reduce response times.”

In 2015, Fort Bend County EMS responded to 90 percent of calls within 12 minutes, 34 seconds; down from 13 minutes, 28 seconds in 2014, according to county data. County officials said the goal is to reach 10 minutes or less 90 percent of the time. The median response time for services has been 6 minutes, 58 seconds.

By the Numbers | Sugar Land EMSCity EMS

In January, Sugar Land began running three full-time medic units and an extra unit throughout the city during peak hours, with an average response time of six minutes, four seconds and 80 percent of calls responded to within eight minutes, Sugar Land EMS Battalion Chief Cindy King said.

The city’s approach is based on a network of ambulances and fire crews in proximity throughout the city to provide better coverage and help reduce response times, said Assistant Fire Chief Clay Fenwick, who took over for Assistant Fire Chief Mario Partida once the program groundwork was in place. Its dispatch operation is able to identify the closest unit to a 911 call and sends that unit.

Dispatch is a smoother process now as well, Fenwick said. Prior to Jan. 1, a 911 caller was transferred from a Sugar Land dispatcher to a Fort Bend dispatcher, which caused an additional 30-40 second delay, Fenwick said.

In recent weeks, units also began transmitting patient data during transport so it is available when the patient arrives, King said. About 94 percent of transports stay in Sugar Land, which means they are taken to Houston Methodist, St. Luke’s Health or Memorial Hermann Sugar Land hospitals. Officials with the hospitals said it is still too early to determine what benefits the procedure provides.

Sugar Land Fire Station LocationsWhile Sugar Land has reduced emergency response times with its own EMS fleet, it was unable to meet revenue projections for the first nine months of the year. The city collected $281,184 for the first nine months, substantially lower than its anticipated $775,873, according to its finance department.

“We are working through an analysis,” said Doug Adolph, assistant communications director for Sugar Land. “When it’s complete, we’ll have a better understanding [of the problem].”

For FY 2016-17, $991,904 in revenue is expected from EMS transports, with the budgeted cost of the EMS program at $1.6 million, according to the finance department.

Established fees for those using ambulance services range from $900 to $1,000, depending on the type of service needed as well as a $14 per transport mile fee. The city previously said fees and a percentage of the tax base used to fund the service were anticipated to cover the cost of providing the service, and no additional future funding was expected.

Timing is EverythingMeanwhile, the city is making better use of available resources, King said. Previously, a fire truck would automatically be called to the scene. Now, dispatchers ask the 911 caller specific questions that help identify what resources are needed. Certain calls warrant only an ambulance and not a fire truck, which frees the trucks to attend to other calls. The new strategy has translated into 40 percent fewer fire truck responses this year, she said.

While Fenwick is happy with response times, he is still looking to shave off a few seconds. In the coming year, he anticipates filling five vacant positions and expects the team to find a rhythm that will translate into even faster response times.

Running a tight ship will be necessary as the city continues to grow and especially when the city annexes Greatwood and New Territory, he said.

“We still haven’t finalized what we’ll need. The city has asked us to look at what we think we’ll need out there, but [we] have not had more detailed discussions,” Fenwick said. “Our focus next year will be to take what we’ve been doing and perfect it.”

County EMS

With 11 medic units covering nearly 900 square miles, Temple described moving units around strategically as a game of chess.

Temple said when he took over as the county’s EMS director in April, he could tell the department was lacking resources from Simonton to Needville.

“That prompted us to go in with a very heavy budget because I could tell we were behind, and we needed to make a huge step forward to cover these gaps or our response times would never improve,” Temple said. “Even without covering Sugar Land, our call volume is still rising.”

For FY 2016-17 he requested two additional medic units, an additional squad and another supervisor. The county allotted $12.9 million for the 2016 EMS budget.

An extra battalion chief will be added and stationed up north near Fulshear and Cinco Ranch and will oversee day-to-day operations, he said.

A 12th medic unit was added as part of a pilot program in May, he said. The academy class that is in field training will help staff that unit as one of its newest medical units that was approved in the 2016 budget.

“Anecdotally, looking at the service since I’ve been here and looking at the number of calls for service, had Sugar Land not taken over we definitely would have asked for more units,” Temple said.

Still, the county’s resources have been squeezed as Fort Bend continues its rapid growth. For the first 10 months of the year, the county received 21,195 calls, which is just 1,000 fewer than they received in previous years, Temple said. Nearly eight out of 10 patients are transported for care.

“Moving forward, we will look at peaks and valleys of calls, come up with more dynamic ways to respond maybe through [extra units during peak hours] or requesting additional money in future budgets for additional units,” he said.