Auto-loading cot promises to protect responders
Updated: February 7, 2013 12:14PM
Fire departments around the area are spending $40,000 apiece to refit ambulances — but not to save patients.
They’re trying to preserve the health of their own employees.
“I think the day is going to come when you will see this on every ambulance,” Glencoe Public Safety Chief Mike Volling said.
He pressed a button on a Stryker Power-Pro patient cot, and the stretcher rose, humming, above an ambulance’s bumper. He rolled the cot to the ambulance, and it folded itself up as he connected it to a Stryker Power-Load, attached to the ambulance bed. A little nudge to the cot, and it slid into the ambulance like it weighed no more than a skateboard.
“You could push it in with two fingers,” he said.
Even with a 700-pound patient aboard.
But who could justify spending considerably more than the cost of a squad car for a two-piece set of labor-saving devices for public employees? Taxpayers could, Volling said.
“We have at least four officers currently retired with disabling back injuries, and they all had collapsed while carrying patients,” he said.
“The price is nothing compared with the cost of a back injury,” said Long Grove Fire Department Battalion Chief Mark Small, who recommended the system to his department.
“Disability can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars if a guy goes off on a back injury, and then he may go off on a pension.
“And this is an injury that may effect them for the rest of their lives.”
His department has two motorized cots, and upgraded with one loader about two years ago when it became available. This year, when Long Grove buys a new ambulance, it will have the loader inside, on delivery.
In Skokie, before long, there will be four ambulances outfitted this way. Chief Ralph Czerwinski said that the issues go beyond disability costs.
“On the short term, guys are away, and that hurts staffing,” he said.
“You hate to see young guys — and it’s young guys who are usually on ambulances — sprain their backs. It’s a real impact on their families.”
Even if a paramedic’s injury isn’t disabling, it’s immediately a problem, Small noted. “He gets hurt, suddenly you’ve got two patients.”
The equipment is one of the fire service’s answers to the burgeoning American obesity problem. Many of the back injuries suffered by ambulance crews are the result of hefting patients who weigh much more than normal, officials say.
Fire departments are buying the power systems to prevent staff back injuries, but the systems are also seen as good for the patients: less jostling, from living room to ambulance to emergency-room door.
A Stryker representative said the loading system was introduced in December, 2011, and the Power-Pro cot in 2005, though other Stryker power cots were available at least two years before that, according to department sources.
Other manufacturers, including Ohio’s Ferno, make power cots, but Michigan-based Stryker is the one that local departments say has a loading system they like.
It’s captured their imaginations and their checkbooks.
Local departments hope the new equipment will eventually drop in price, and in the meantime, they’re finding creative ways to pay for it. In Glencoe, Volling is using the Foreign Fire Insurance Fund, a little-known source of cash used only for fire department capital equipment. It’s derived from a tax on insurance companies from outside a jurisdiction selling fire policies within it.
In Skokie, some of the cost of the first three power pairings will be offset by a $75,000 grant from Skokie American Legion Post 320. The post is giving the department $25,000 more for training equipment.
Long grove has received grants for all its purchases. For one of the sets, Long Grove won a grant of about $12,000 from its insurance carrier, the Illinois Public Risk Fund, plus about $25,000 from Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Federal Assistance to Firefighters grant program, Chief Bob Turpel said. He said the insurance company has also promised to get a discount from Stryker for the next new Power-Load.
The easier operation afforded by the new equipment is unlikely to change standards to make it easier for smaller or older staffers to get paramedic jobs, department officials say. Even with other equipment, like “stair chairs” that allow patients to be slid down stairs instead of hefted, paramedics and emergency medical technicians still need superior upper-body strength just to lift patients onto stretchers and backboards.
Some veteran paramedics have been opposed to the new equipment. The Stryker cots are bigger, more cumbersome, and heavier, and the loader has been off-putting and in the way to many experienced paramedics at first, Small said.
But after a short time, “We have pretty much a 100 percent buy-in,” he said.
“Change doesn’t come easy in the fire service,” Czerwinski said. “This one is a no-brainer.”