Imagine coming home to find a spouse or parent collapsed, unconscious on the kitchen floor. You call 9-1-1, but every second you wait for the ambulance counts. What do you do? CPR? How many pushes? How hard? What if the airway is blocked when you give rescue breaths?
Thanks to a new partnership with Gundersen Health System, 9-1-1 callers in Winona County will soon have potentially life-saving advice in the moments before the ambulance arrives. Currently, Winona County does not employ any dispatchers licensed to provide expert medical advice. Providing that service in-house would require an extra, certified staff member for every shift and likely cost tens of thousands of dollars, explained Dispatch Center Supervisor Mike Peterson. Gundersen Health System has agreed to provide that service free for a year through a La Crosse-based center dedicated to emergency calls.
This system may help save lives in more ways than one, said Winona Ambulance Service Medical Director John Gallagher. Without a credentialed medical expert responding to an ambulance call, ambulance crews have to treat every call as a life-or-death emergency. That means lights, sirens, and top speeds on every call whether it is a broken ankle or a stopped heart, he said.
Try as they may to stay safe, the risk of an accident en route to a 9-1-1 call is dramatically increased when ambulance drivers turn on their lights and siren, Gallagher said. "If we turn our lights and sirens on, drivers get confused. They don't know what to do," explained Winona Ambulance Service Director of Operations Karla Eppler. A car in the middle of an intersection may just freeze, not knowing whether to pull forward or back up, she noted.
By only turning on the sirens when it really matters, Winona ambulance drivers will be able to reduce the risk to themselves and bystanders.
Many Winona County residents are served by ambulance agencies that lay outside of the county, like those in Plainview and Rushford. Those residents will not experience the added benefit of prioritization of siren use, but their calls will still be forwarded to Gundersen Health System for medical instruction.
This may save lives, Peterson told the County Board on Tuesday. The board approved the agreement, which is expected to begin this month.