EDITOR'S NOTE: Lifestyle Editor Karen Cimms spent the day with a Lehighton Ambulance crew Saturday to see how bridge traffic is impacting the response time.
Sirens wailing and lights flashing, the Lehighton Ambulance pulls out of its station on Iron Street in Lehighton Saturday afternoon and races toward Parryville, dispatched for a patient suffering with extreme pain, severe headache and nausea.
A few minutes later, the unit sits quietly on the Thomas J. McCall Memorial Bridge with its lights flashing.
There's no point in employing the siren. Traffic is backed up on the structurally deficient bridge, which is undergoing a rehabilitation project and is currently down to one lane heading north. There is nowhere for conscientious drivers to pull over to allow the ambulance to pass.
The 5-mile trip takes 13 minutes, six minutes longer than usual, as we waited through three red lights to cross the bridge.
EMT Mike Resh says it was one of the shortest waits he's experienced since the detour began.
"Every call that must access the bridge, there's a delay in response time," Resh says. "I can't think of one where we weren't delayed and were able to get across without any traffic."
Although the call was serious, it wasn't life-threatening, but it could have been.
"What if you can't breathe?" asks Joni Gestl, administrative coordinator for the ambulance association. "Imagine having to hold your breath the amount of time we sat on the bridge. You couldn't do it."
That might be what it felt like for a young woman last week in Palmerton, who was in severe respiratory distress. The trip over the bridge took 15 minutes and was about six minutes longer than normal. For someone struggling to breathe, those extra minutes may have seemed like her last.
"She was really having difficulty," Gestl says, "so much so that I hadn't seen anyone in that much trouble in a while."
The ambulance was delayed on the bridge for so long during a recent dispatch for a cardiac arrest, the Advanced Life Support unit was canceled and the local Basic Life Support unit transported the patient directly to the hospital.
Lehighton Ambulance Association averages about 22 calls a day from its four stations, and on a typical day, crosses the bridge four or five times.
Gestl says it's fortunate that most of their calls aren't life-threatening, but that wasn't the case on July 17 when they were dispatched to Beltzville Lake for a boating accident and a patient with severe bleeding.
It was a weeknight with rush-hour traffic and a trip over the bridge has been known to take up to 20 minutes. In this case, the patient did not have 20 minutes to spare, so with the assistance of a police escort, the ambulance traveled through Weissport, accessing an emergency lane created by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation before work on the bridge began.
Bridge Street in the borough is being used as a detour for bridge traffic heading south.
Although the ambulance was traveling north, against the flow of traffic, the officer stopped oncoming vehicles to permit the ambulance to safely travel the remaining distance through town and over the railroad tracks, allowing them to respond to a true life-or-death situation.
The patient's injuries were serious enough that he was flown from the scene.
The decision to use the emergency lane was not taken lightly, Gestl says. In fact, since the new traffic patterns and detour were put into place on June 6, the Lehighton ambulance has only used the emergency lane twice; and both times with a police escort.
However, after an outcry from Weissport officials, the ambulance association has agreed it will not use the emergency lane again, regardless of the situation.
At a borough council meeting early last week, Weissport Mayor Jonathan Troutman said he was incensed when he saw a Franklin Township police officer escort the ambulance through town using the specially designated lane.
"That emergency lane was put in so there would be access to Weissport during emergencies and was not set up as a shortcut," Troutman said, adding that the borough could not "condone this type of behavior."
"The officer and the ambulance accessed the emergency lane and then went down Franklin and Park streets to White Street, where they went against one-way traffic on Bridge Street before crossing the railroad tracks," he added.
"This is reckless behavior for anyone," Troutman said. "There is a blind spot, and it is just not worth it."
Resh says ambulance drivers often find themselves in similar situations, and always proceed with caution.
"There have been many circumstances when under the direction and communication with the police department, we had to access difficult points and did so in a safe manor because it was a controlled setting," Resh says. "We'd never do that on our own judgment without police or fire police.
"It's not like we're haphazardly driving around, trying to create more problems for ourselves. We're trying to figure out what is the best solution to getting to our patient in the quickest amount of time without jeopardizing our safety or the safety of those around us."
When contacted last week PennDOT disputed the mayor's claim.
"The emergency lane is for all emergency services; therefore any emergency equipment may use it while responding to an emergency call," PennDOT district press officer Ronald J. Young Jr. said.
In addition, Section 3015 of the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code permits drivers of emergency vehicles to exercise special privileges, which include "disregard of regulations governing direction of movement" provided lights and sirens are employed.
In deference to the mayor, Franklin Township Police Chief Thomas Beltz has said he would notify all of his officers and "promised there would not be a repeat situation."
The ambulance association has also agreed to conform with Troutman's wishes and will not attempt to head north using the emergency lane.
Finding a solution
With no other option, Lehighton Ambulance will instead seek a technical solution to ensure they can reach patients as quickly as possible.
Last week the association ordered five pre-emption emitters that can be mounted on the dash or in the lightbar of each ambulance. These units emit a strobe that will change a traffic signal to green in the direction they are headed, as well as turn the light red in all other directions to give the ambulance safe access through an intersection.
Although the ambulance association has 11 units at four stations in Carbon County -- Lehighton, Jim Thorpe, Penn Forest Township and Summit Hill -- the organization wants to see how emitters work before investing in a unit for each truck.
Although purchase of the units, about $186 each, was not in this year's budget, ambulance officials decided it was the right move.
"We researched it and think it might be a help to us," Gestl says. "We'll have to see how it works on the bridge. We've never had a need for them before, that's why we didn't have them in the past, and since there has been no other option, we're going through the expense to purchase them and see if it expedites our response across the bridge."
The pre-emption emitters should arrive by the end of the week. They will be placed in the four primary units at each station, and a fifth will be used in one of the secondary units.
If they work well, the association will consider purchasing additional emitters for the remaining units.
"At the end of the day, Lehighton Ambulance is working on making it better," Gestl says.