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Rockdale firefighters struggle with finding resources as medical calls rise

Posted at 6:18 PM, Aug 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-18 15:15:31-04

ROCKDALE, Texas — The Rockdale Volunteer Fire Department has lately seen an increase in medical-related calls. This development, compounded by the lack of hospitals and urgent care in the nearby area, has caused an increased response time and transport time for patients.

In recent months, Rockdale firefighters responded to a major highway accident, at a time which all three of the city’s ambulances were tied up with other calls. Herbert Vaughn, volunteer fire chief, remembers that day vividly.

“We’ve got children laying on the side of the road and all of our ambulances are gone," he said. "So we’re depending on volunteer and backup units from the AMR system out of Waco, Temple, and Travis County. And that’s a long way.”

The fire department has struggled desperately since Milam County’s only two hospitals closed in 2018. What once was a brief stop in town for the city’s ambulances, totaling approximately 30 minutes, now takes exponentially longer.

“If they carry somebody to Temple, it’s an hour there, and 20 or 30 minutes to get the patient turned over to the hospital crew," Vaughn said. "You’re without an ambulance for two-and-a-half hours.”

Rockdale's ambulances are contracted out through the city via the company American Medical Response [AMR]. These vehicles are constantly driving to and from calls, sometimes assisted by a medical helicopter. In some instances, firefighters have to take matters into their own hands and transport injured persons off of a scene in the backs of pickup trucks.

With the recent increase in coronavirus cases, those medical incidents are even more frequent, taking up more than three-fourths of first responders’ calls.

“Here lately we’ve seen a lot of them calling in with a severe cough and low oxygen saturation," said Richard Todd, Rockdale volunteer firefighter.

Todd responded to a heart attack patient recently, in which ambulances did not arrive on the scene for an hour after firefighters did. Todd and his colleagues did what they could to keep the man alive through CPR, but were unsuccessful without more advanced medical care.

The patient ended up dying.

“Would we have saved his life when he collapsed?" Todd pondered. "We’ll never know that, but the odds are definitely bad if you’re an hour out.”

Ideally, Chief Vaughn said, the firefighters' greatest wish would be for the construction of a new hospital in Milam County. More realistically, they’d like to see county and Rockdale city leaders allocate funding for this issue.

“The ideal situation is to have another hospital here," Vaughn commented. "AMR could probably keep up if we had a hospital close by. Without a hospital, we definitely need more ambulances.”