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Paramedics Can Now Control Traffic Lights

JEMS.com Editor's Note: According to the April 2007 JEMS article "The Risky Side of Response," approximately 60% of accidents analyzed in a study have occurred during emergent driving. Common factors included traveling through an intersection and striking another vehicle. Read "The Risky Side of Response" by David M. Williams, MS, Christine M. Zalar, MS.

NAPLES COUNTY, Fla. -- The county is slated to receive a $75,000 grant from the Florida Department of Transportation to outfit ambulances with transmitter devices to turn a red light green or keep a green light on longer as the ambulance heads into an intersection to avoid accidents.

An extra benefit may be boosting response times to accident victims when lives are hanging in the balance, according to findings of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The review found that ambulances in Fairfax, Va., have shaved 30 to 45 seconds per intersection along a busy route with the devices. In Plano, Texas, emergency vehicles have maintained a response time goal of more than 90 percent, according to NHTSA.

Collier County Emergency Medical Services hopes to have 45 OptiCom transmitters in hand in 60 days with installation happening shortly thereafter, said Wayne Watson, EMS deputy chief.

Each of the county's ambulances, back-up ambulances and supervisor vehicles will be outfitted with the transmitter that sends a signal to a receiver at the intersection light that an ambulance is approaching to keep the green light on or turn it green, he said.

"When we get to an intersection (now), that is mostly the time when there will be an accident," he said. "It should improve safety quite a bit."

The North Naples and Golden Gate fire departments have been using the devices on its vehicles to control intersection lights, and so has the Marco Island fire and police departments.

"It's not new to the community but new to EMS," Watson said. "It does shorten the (light) cycle but it does it with a warning. It's a bit of inconvenience for people skipping a light cycle."

Collier County government has been installing the receiver part of the system at numerous intersections to work with emergency responders' signal transmitters to preempt the traffic light. So far, 57 intersections have the systems out of 208 intersections on a county list. Another 23 intersections are slated to have the receiver installed shortly.

"It is obviously a great safety improvement," said Chris Byrne, deputy chief of the Marco fire department, adding the vehicles were outfitted with the transmitters about six months ago. "This will be our first season with them in place."

He could not say if the devices are improving response times on its own because other factors, such as road improvements, come into play.

The county EMS received an estimate for the sensor devices two years ago and likely needs updating, but Watson said the $75,000 grant should cover any price increase.

Jeff Page, EMS operations director, said the devices will be a significant improvement for ambulance safety through intersections and for the public.

"It just advances the light," Page said. "We come up to a red light now and have to stop."

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