RALEIGH -- Have a serious heart attack in Wake County and a paramedic in a growling muscle car might speed to your aid.
Wake's Emergency Medical Services Department launches a new program today that will bolster its fleet of ambulance crews with 14 specially trained paramedics deployed in souped-up Dodge Chargers.
EMS Chief Skip Kirkwood said at a news conference Monday that the program is the first of its kind in the nation. The new advanced practice paramedics will be dispatched to treat the sickest patients and help prevent emergencies among high-risk groups such as the elderly through education and outreach.
The police-package Chargers, which feature a brutish 5.7-liter HEMI V8 engine with the power of 368 horses, offer the combination of speed, handling and cargo space needed for the new paramedics to respond quickly. Plain-wrapper versions of the Charger are named for a popular Dodge speedster from the 1960s and '70s and are aimed at male boomers nostalgic for that era's fast movers.
The Wake commissioners approved $1.5 million in new spending for the pilot program over the next year.
The five cars cost about $50,900 each outfitted with emergency lights, computers and medical supplies. Compare that with a customized ambulance at $145,000.
County officials know that some taxpayers might see the sporty sedans as overkill, especially in lean economic times. They distributed a fact sheet to reporters Monday that began: "Why a Dodge Charger? The right vehicle for the job."
EMS District Chief Jeffrey Hammerstein said the department comparison-shopped before settling on the Chargers, which are similar to those recently purchased by the N.C. Highway Patrol.
Why the Charger?
They are cheaper and more fuel-efficient than the Chevrolet Suburbans and other SUVs issued to EMS supervisors, as well as comparable police interceptors such as Ford's Crown Victoria. Their resale value, he added, should be higher when it comes time to sell them as surplus vehicles.
"We didn't choose this vehicle because it has a powerful engine or a fast start or something like that," said Hammerstein, who said he has not yet driven one of the Chargers. "Sure, we don't want to buy something with such a small, four-cylinder engine you can't make it go. It's a safer vehicle altogether because it is prepared for an emergency response."
Dodge does offer the police Charger with a less-robust V6, but Hammerstein said the more powerful version features better brakes and more responsive steering.
With their target-sight grilles, menacing headlamps and humped rear quarter panels, the Chargers have become the darling of law enforcement officers across the country. They will accelerate from a dead stop to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds.
Several videos are posted on the Internet site YouTube touting its Mustang-whuppin' prowess and documenting its ability to smoke and shred tires.
EMSworkers in other places, including Orange County, already use Chargers. What sets Wake apart is the advanced training of its paramedics and their varied mission, Hammerstein said.
The 14 paramedics added through the new program are to work staggered shifts to provide at least five additional staff members across Wake County through the busiest parts of the day. Two more will be on duty to supplement existing EMS staffing at night.
The goal is to ensure that at least one additional, experienced paramedic is assigned to each high-risk EMS call, which often requires time-sensitive procedures. If a patient's heart has stopped, for example, the paramedics might insert a breathing tube, attach cardiac monitors, use a defibrillator and inject chilled IV fluids to lower body temperature and protect brain function.
In the past, dispatchers sometimes sent two ambulances to provide enough paramedics. The new program will allow many patients to be treated while the second ambulance remains in service.
"We have a shortage of paramedics, both nationally and in the state of North Carolina," said Dr. Brent Myers, medical director of Wake County EMS. "This program allows us to make more efficient use of the paramedics."
The paramedics will also evaluate, educate and provide preventive care for senior citizens prone to fall or people with a history of substance abuse.
BASE PRICE: $20,900
TOTAL COST INCLUDING MEDICAL EQUIPMENT: $50,900
POWER PLANT: 5.7-liter HEMI V8 with 368 horsepower
GAS MILEAGE: 16 city, 25 highway
0 TO 60: less than 6 seconds
TOP SPEED: more than 150 mph
SOURCES: WAKE COUNTY EMS AND CHRYSLER
See a video of the Charger in action at www.newsobserver.com.