New policy limits EMS lights, sirens in Berrien County

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — The Berrien County Medical Control Authority is instituting a new policy with ambulances and their use of lights and sirens.

For the last four weeks, EMS responders in Berrien County have reduced the use of flashing lights and sirens when responding to emergency calls. Berrien County Medical Control Authority Chairwoman Mary Ann Pater said the decision was made to improve the safety of emergency personnel and the general public.

According to a report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there are an average of 4,500 motor vehicle crashes involving ambulances each year, with numerous accidents attributed to the use of emergency lights and sirens. Pater said the Authority’s decision weighed heavily on studies like NHTSA’s.

What stood out to Pater in the report was how 63 percent of people killed in crashes involving ambulances were the occupant of another vehicle.

“Lights and sirens are distractions that can lead to traffic accidents or pedestrians being struck by vehicles,” Pater said. “When drivers see those lights in the mirror, they pull over and can get into an accident. People driving assume everyone is paying attention. These stops disrupt the average commuter and increases the danger to everybody.”

Additional studies have shown there is no significant amount of time saved or impact on clinical outcomes while using lights and sirens for response.

Researchers in North Carolina compared lights and siren transport to non-lights and siren transport in an urban setting where transport time involved distances of 8 miles or less. They found that lights and siren transport only averaged 43.5 seconds faster than non-lights and siren transport.

A similar study conducted in Syracuse, N.Y., found lights and siren response reduced travel times by an average of 1 minute and 46 seconds. Researches concluded, “Although statistically significant, this time saving is likely to be clinically relevant in only a few cases.”

Jonathan Beyer is the EMS medical director of the Berrien County Medical Control Authority who played a role in the directive. Beyer said the time saved by using sirens is not large enough to risk the safety of other drivers.

“I think we are going to make the change without affecting patient care. It will be in a timely matter, but we will reduce the risk with other people on the street,” Beyer said. “We have a responsibility, not just to the person who dialed 911, but to everything who is sharing the road.”

Pater said there are some instances where EMS responders can still use lights and sirens.

“If an ambulance came up to stopped traffic on I-94, we may still allow them to use sirens and drive at a proper rate of speed to get past a line of cars that are backed up,” she said. “In that situation it makes sense. But there won’t be dispatched sirens.”

The procedural change has already taken place in some counties in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Beyer said he’s unsure of all Michigan counties, but did say Berrien County is the first to do so in Southwest Michigan.

EMS is about change and adapting. Beyer said local EMS providers have handle the new procedure because “they are good about adapting and improvising on the job.”

“People need to know someone is still coming for them,” Beyer said. “They will get the same care. If they don’t see lights or hear sirens, that doesn’t mean people aren’t coming for them.”

Despite the procedural change, Beyer said things shouldn’t be different in an emergency response. In case of any emergency, residents should still call 911 immediately.

If drivers see an ambulance without any emergency lights or sirens, Pater said they should treat it like any other vehicle on the road.

“Other drivers should not be able to know if an ambulance is responding,” Pater said. “People have ambulances drive alongside them all the time when they are not responding to an emergency. However, if an ambulance approaches with lights and sirens, drivers should still pull off to the side of the road.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on April 16, 2016)

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