The city speaks: When to call an ambulance
Situations that necessitate a 911 call and those that don’t
By Scott M. Owen Sr.
Deputy Chief of EMS, Marshfield Fire and Rescue Department
At one time or another, you have probably heard something similar to, “In an emergency call 911.” We hear it, and we know what the purpose of 911 is, but do you truly know what constitutes an emergency requiring an ambulance response?
In a medical emergency, calling an ambulance could literally mean the difference between life and death. However, people sometimes hesitate to call because they are not sure if the situation qualifies as an emergency. An emergency, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary, is “an unexpected and usually dangerous situation that calls for immediate action.”
Ambulances are equipped to treat and transport patients with potentially life-threatening medical emergencies where interventions en route to the hospital are necessary for the patient. In a survey published by the Emergency Medicine Journal in 2011, findings suggested that most people know when to call 911 for a life-threatening emergency like a heart attack, but one in three people do not know when an ambulance is not necessary for less urgent situations like a patient who has chronic back pain and needs a prescription refilled.
Across the country overutilization of ambulances for non-life threatening situations continues to be a concern. Ambulances that are used repeatedly for non-emergent transport of patients to and from hospitals are out of service for the duration of the transport. This down time for the ambulance can place a level of stress on the service itself as well as creating the potential for a delayed response for those patients who are in need of emergency care.
Once on the scene, paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) are trained and equipped to begin assessing and administering emergency care. They are in communication with the hospital’s emergency department physicians and are able to alert the hospital to the patient’s condition prior to arrival.
When should I call 911 and request an ambulance? Ask yourself the following questions, and if you can answer “Yes” to them or you are unsure, call 911 and request an ambulance:
—Is the condition life-threatening?
—Could the condition worsen and become life-threatening on the way to the hospital?
—Could moving the victim cause further injury?
—Does the victim require the skills and equipment of paramedics or EMTs?
—Could distance, traffic, or weather conditions cause a delay in getting to the hospital?
Examples where 911 should be called and transport to the emergency department by ambulance is appropriate include:
- Heart attacks or cardiac arrest (not breathing, no pulse).
- Severe chest pain.
- Uncontrolled bleeding.
- Head injuries.
- Trouble breathing.
- Broken bones protruding through the skin.
- Drug overdose.
- Heat stroke.
There are instances, however, where an ambulance response is not needed to transport a patient to the hospital such as:
- Flu-like symptoms.
- Common colds.
- Chronic (ongoing) aches and pains.
- Minor cuts.
- Broken fingers or toes.
- Emotional upsets.
- Routine visits/appointments to medical offices, clinics and hospitals.
In Wisconsin, dialing 911 in an emergency connects you to emergency services including EMS, law enforcement, and fire departments. Do not call 911 for non-emergency situations or transportation needs. Doing so can divert critical resources from situations that are a matter of life and death. When in doubt if a truly life-threatening condition exists, always err on the side of caution and call 911.