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Alachua County Adds 2 Ambulances For Overweight Patients

Alachua County Fire Rescue announced Wednesday that it has added two ambulances that will fit the needs of patients weighing up to 1,600 pounds.

Each one includes a hydraulic lift to help patients get into the ambulances and to take the physical stress off emergency responders. They are also equipped with wider stretchers because a person's width plays a more important role in transporting him or her than actual weight.

“Typically, it’s not a weight issue for us," fire chief Jeff Taylor said. “More often than not, it’s a size issue. We do believe it is going to offer a safer, quicker service for our patients. In the past we’ve had to rely on outside agencies.”

In 2013, Alachua County had a 24.4 percent obesity rate among adults, according to the Florida Department of Health. At 26.4 percent, the state's overall rate was slightly higher.

"It’s a service for, unfortunately, a growing problem nationwide,” Taylor said at a demonstration Thursday. “Obesity is on the rise. In Alachua County, we are below the state average of obese patients, but that doesn’t preclude us from providing this service. Five of the seven counties conjoined with us are in the upper echelon."

After 46 years of working in fire service, Charles Tannachion, a training captain, said between 2 and 5 percent of his patients have needed the accommodation.

“It was essentially their girth," Tannachion said. “Obese patients tend to spread out a little bit more on the stretchers, so these secure them better and make it easier to transfer them safely.”

The new ambulances will operate from Station 10 on Gainesville's east side and Station 16 on the west side.

Standard ambulances cost $220,000, Taylor said, and the lift systems on the two ambulances cost an additional $12,700 each. The wider stretchers cost $8,100 each, which is $7,000 cheaper than regular stretchers because they do not have as many features.

The stretchers and lift costs were reduced with a county award grant, which covered 75 percent of the cost.

Tannachion said the new stretchers are similar to those used to carry professional football players off the field. It takes about an hour and a half of training for firefighters to learn how to operate the lift and larger stretcher, he added.

“The controls are at the foot of the stretcher, and you need someone at each corner," Tannachion said. "It could have six people, three people on each side, if they needed to go over rugged terrain."

Deputy Chief Harold Theus, who has been with Alachua County Fire Rescue for two years, said the additions are necessary.

“We’ve had patients up to 700 pounds,” he said. “It can be as often as a couple of times a month.”

Alachua County Fire Rescue has a high call volume, and they transport 65 percent of the patients they are called to, Theus said.

“There are occasions that happen frequently enough where we need this piece of equipment available,” he said, adding that from 38,000 calls in 2015, 25,000 patients were transported.

Firefighter Larry Neal, who has been with Alachua County Fire Rescue for two years, said he once responded to a call from a nursing home and was unable to transport the patient using a normal procedure.

“We actually had to call another service to have him transported out,” he said. “This has been our limiting factor: transporting the geriatric patients.”

Neal said the hydraulic lift will take a lot of physical stress off the firefighters.

“With this stretcher, we just pull the stretcher out, and it just rides on the lift the entire time,” he said. “We don’t have to manually lift the patient ourselves.”

James is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing
Glenn is a senior journalism major at UF. He has written for The Gainesville Sun and the Independent Florida Alligator.