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'Alpha Trucks' Work for Tucson but Not Phoenix

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The Phoenix Fire Department recently ended a six-month pilot program that dispatched one of five "alternative response vehicles," or "alpha trucks," to low-acuity calls, although the Tucson Fire Department reports being delighted with its alpha truck program.

Tucson's alpha trucks

In 2006, Tucson began sending two EMTs in an alpha truck to respond to the lowest-acuity calls. "An alpha truck crew is responsible for evaluating [persons] in need and assisting them with solving their problems. This may require some basic education or a slight change to the living environment. It may also require a social service referral," a recent TFD press release explains.

"We started with one unit and the following year put in a second and now have a third funded, and run it [as needed] when we have the staffing for it," said Mike McKendrick, TFD's assistant chief for operations. "It's really helped our response times on acute calls, and with the cost of fuel, running a half-ton pickup is much more cost effective than either large fire apparatus or even an ambulance."

During each 24-hour shift, an alpha truck responds to as many as 10 calls the TFD dispatch center identifies as "low acuity" based on the Medical Priority Dispatch System. According to McKendrick, an alpha truck is dispatched if a call falls into one of the alpha categories for which TFD transports "about 10% of the time." On approximately 5% of those calls, he added, the ARV crew finds the caller actually needs a higher-level response and calls for an ambulance.

"Our alpha trucks are a completely [new] third tier in our system," he said. "We didn't take people out of the engine companies to put them on fire calls." Most firefighter/EMTs working on the alpha trucks are fairly new recruits who receive eight hours of training for the program, plus a half day of advanced driver's training, McKendrick said. (The alpha trucks are outfitted with lights and sirens and sometimes respond code-three to residential fires and major trauma calls.)

TFD couples its alpha truck program with its Human Services Referral Program, which began in 2003 as the TFD Senior Assistance Program, aimed at helping elderly frequent 9-1-1 callers with their underlying problems.

The HSR program allows any TFD field personnel

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