Thursday, April 15, 2021

A conversation with the Chief

Fire and medical units in an immaculate bay.

Fire and medical units in an immaculate bay.

By Jane A. Marlowe
janem@coastalbreezenews.com

“The Fire Department is like the Police Department, a base core of community services. On the fire side we are the life, health and safety component of city government. We deal with issues from the beginning of construction of homes, multi-family residences and commercial properties, from permitting all the way to completion and/or demolition of properties. Our focus is with the occupants of these residences and the users of commercial buildings.” Thus began a conversation with Chief Mike Murphy of the Marco Island Fire Department.

Modern day fire departments and their personnel do not fit the model of our fathers’ fire departments. They don’t even resemble our own childhood memories of our local fire departments. Firefighters are not waiting for the alarm to sound, are not cooking, eating or sleeping the shift away. They are well trained firefighters but they also have been trained as paramedics or EMTs. Ongoing training is required by state statute and Marco Island has a high standard of readiness in firefighting and providing medical intervention.

Chief Murphy explained that of the 38 employees in the department, 19, or 50% are certified paramedics, three are currently in paramedic school and the remaining staff are EMTs. “New hires in the department are coming in very highly trained in the medical arena. Ongoing training occurs in house provided by firefighters who have higher levels of instructional capability.”

“The medical side of a firefighter’s response has been around a long time,” commented Chief Murphy. “Throughout the tradition of the fire service, firefighters have been caregivers. They love challenges, they like excitement and they are driven to help people.

Decades ago, funeral homes were the ‘ambulance providers.’ When the car became common transportation, firefighters responded to medical crises, not only to fires with risk of life, but to car crashes where victims had to be extricated and brought to doctors or hospitals. They are, along with the police, the first responders to fires, boat incidents, crises in public buildings, hazardous material4 events, any situation requiring immediate medical assistance. It is a natural fit for fire personnel to provide medical assistance and it brought about the evolution of emergency medical services on scene.”
The chief recalled an incident in the 1970’s, when he worked on the east coast. His department had an ambulance and EMS trained fire personnel. One of the most vocal critics of the fire department objected to its budget requirements, including medical training costs, and any other fire related issue that came up. One day, the inevitable happened, and he suffered a severe medical emergency of anaphylactic shock. The fire department responded and, thanks to their medical training, he received urgent care on scene and they saved his life. To the gentleman’s credit, he made a public acknowledgement of the fire department’s response and the care they provided. From that time forward he became the department’s staunchest supporter in the community.

The Chief commented on services provided to the city, many based on state statutes and county and city code requirements. “All of our codes are built upon safety within new construction and existing structures for the prevention of fires, fire spread and more importantly, smoke trail, all in an attempt to minimize life loss and damage.”

During the day, two firefighters are assigned to fire prevention. Inspections of existing multi-family residences and commercial property are regularly conducted. An example of one type of inspection is to insure ‘fire stops’ are secure and based on building construction rules. Fire stops are spaces between condo units which prevent fire and smoke from penetrating into an adjacent unit for a one to two hour time limit. The time is based on the existing rule at the time of construction. If any remodeling or repair is made to a condo which involves intrusion into the space, such as a pipe installation, the area around the pipe must be sealed to the one to two hour limit which applies to the structure. If problems are observed, they are reported and a plan to correct is developed. In the past year, 4,000 inspections were completed by the fire department.

Ray Munyon, the island’s Fire Marshal, offers courses for contractors or builders to guide them through the permitting process and determine that products they intend to use are best for securing the safety of the structure. He has a full array of new product information which he shares with contractors and builders. His courses have been extremely popular drawing attendees from as far away as Atlanta. Munyon has completed about 300 such courses in the past year.

The Marco Island Fire Department offers an array of services to residents and visitors including customized training in CPR, how to use automatic external defibrillators and fall prevention recommendations. They conduct pool safety checks and fire drills in condominiums. Firefighters will go to private homes by invitation, to review pool safety and make recommendations to homeowners for adequate safeguards for the protection of their family and guests. Marco Island cable TV runs service announcements from the fire department to inform the public of the firefighters’ availability for education, training and review of safety procedures.

Firefighters make regular school visits to give instruction to students in fire and medical safety. They are always greeted with great enthusiasm by the children and invitations to visit the firehouse are very well received. According to Chief Murphy, “kids are very excited to come to the firehouse and are always in awe of the equipment and our firefighters.”

What happens when an emergency call comes in? Where does it come from? Who responds and how are decisions made about which personnel and vehicles go out on the call?

Calls come in through 911 to the call center in Lely operated by the Sheriff’s Department. The caller is asked a series of questions to gather the facts and location of the emergency. The dispatcher, operating a console, sends the call by radio to Marco Island and, at the same time, tone alerts are automatically set off which alert the entire firehouse of an emergency.

There is a commander, a Battalion Chief, on duty 24 hours a day who is in charge of managing the emergency, making decisions about what personnel and vehicles are required. The department covers Marco Island and Goodland which comprise 24 square miles with services from two stations, 1280 San Marco Road and 751 Elkcam Circle. Response time, including the original 911 call, averages six minutes for Marco firefighters.
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is one county ambulance stationed on island. There are also two paramedic fire trucks available every day. The county assigns two county firefighters/ paramedics to Marco Island daily. “We mix our personnel so that a county and Marco Island firefighter/paramedic team man the ambulance and a county and Marco firefighter/paramedic team is assigned to a paramedic fire truck each day. Chief Murphy commented. “We believe it is better to diversify our personnel for training reasons and for their safety.”

If a call is identified as an EMS call, requiring emergency medical services, one of the paramedic fire trucks will respond if the ambulance is on another call, and with the ambulance if the Battalion Chief determines the situation will require more than one medically trained team. “It is better to have two teams of trained paramedics and EMTs on scene to address the many duties which must be rapidly processed in an emergency. For example, the patient may need an IV started, it may be necessary to clear an air way blockage, perform an EKG, administer medication, prepare the patient for transport. At the same time family members need support while a medical history is obtained. Two teams can process the urgent scene with the health and safety of the patient their paramount concern. They cannot provide assistance if they remain back at the firehouse. When you call 911 for a critical medical need you deserve the best care we can provide.”

Comment cards are sent to every household where there has been a visit made by the fire department for a medical emergency. 99.8% of the responses report an extremely grateful acknowledgement of the services provided. Chief Murphy calls any responder who mentions an issue or problem and works to resolve the situation.

Generally, the writer has suggested a delay in response time but records of the incident, more often than not, indicate the time was well within the average response for the Marco fire department. “There is another impact from the comment cards. Suggestions and improvements are looked at for implementation, and we also ask questions about 911 and the patients’ hospital experience. We are committed to provide the best care the department can offer on every call.”

This writer can bear witness to the need for more than one medically trained team responding to a critical emergency. Last summer, three firefighters with medical training attended to my husband’s multiple critical needs while another helped me stay calm and gave him the necessary information in another room.

Fire trucks will go out to help a resident who has fallen and needs to be lifted back into bed or into a wheelchair. This call is identified as a public assist. The team checks for injury, does a blood pressure reading and makes certain the patient is not in need of transport. Once again, my family was deeply grateful to know that the “big red truck” pulled up quietly to our home many, many times in the past years when they were too far away to help.
Fire trucks respond to calls with the ambulance if there is a possibility of a major medical event. Their highest calling is to respond to fires and protect life. “On this island we do have structure fires in high rises and safety rules require that a certain number of people are on scene to control the fire. If the fire is contained in a waste basket or kitchen area, there can be serious fire damage and spread of smoke which must be brought under control. At this time, we do not meet the National Safety Board requirements for sufficient personnel to respond and resolve fire calls to certain structures, but we do our best.”

The Chief remarked that “fires are one of the most traumatic experiences that can happen to people. Pictures, family mementos, treasured possessions are lost and cannot be replaced. Fires are devastating to us physically, smoke inhalation, free radicals invading our system, burns and other severe injuries. Additionally, a fire in a multi-family building or a business could mean long term revenue loss.”
He continued. “Firefighters today provide a phenomenal amount of services for the tax dollars required to pay for those services. The notion of firefighters sitting around all day no longer applies. They are highly trained and conduct a surprising array of education and support services throughout the community. Marco Island has a Haz Mat team trained to recognize and neutralize hazardous materials. They can be assigned anywhere in Florida where there is a need. We have divers who can retrieve victims from water events and in recent years, their services have been utilized in several unfortunate accidents. Firefighters are our front line of defense during hurricanes as we have seen. They stay to protect our property when we leave.”

During our interview, a 911 call came in for off island assistance to an individual experiencing cardiac distress. A tonal alert sounded throughout the fire department building. No transport was available in the off island vicinity and a Marco paramedic fire truck responded to the emergency. “Our fire truck will be primary medical provider until an ambulance can be dispatched from out of zone,” explained Chief Murphy. Response time from receipt of call to the fire truck on the move was within minutes.

A few minutes later, a second call reported another individual in distress on island. The ambulance was already on an earlier call and the second paramedic fire truck responded in minutes from the call and tonal alert.

Chief Murphy’s remarks about current significant matters in which the department is involved are presented in a separate article in this issue. He concluded our interview with these comments and an invitation to return.

“Once people understand what our department offers they become our best supporters. People usually don’t think about needing emergency services. They don’t even think a time will come when they will have an emergency which requires a 911 call. Generally, the experience of receiving emergency fire or medical services results in an increased awareness and respect for the excellent services our fire department offers its citizens. Just like many citizens, the firefighters, along with all city employees have worked four years without a raise. For most of the department staff, duties have increased and they have responded with professionalism and a positive attitude.”

Chief Murphy is proud to be one of the leaders of the men and women of his department and looks forward to offering an even higher level of services to the island community.

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