Emergency medical services (EMS) have evolved considerably during the past several decades, but the existence of the nationwide broadband network being deployed by FirstNet promises to greatly increase efficiencies and save lives, according to FirstNet board member Kevin McGinnis.

McGinnis, who also serves as program manager for the National Association of State EMS Officials (NASEMSO), made his comments last month during a session at the International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) in Las Vegas. During his presentation, McGinnis said that today’s ambulance is much more than “a horizontal taxi cab” that simply transports patients to hospitals.

“We’ve come a long way,” he said. “We do some amazing things out in the field to save lives that we couldn’t do 40 years ago. But one of the things we don’t do any differently than we did 40 years ago is how we communicate.”

EMS entities still rely on VHF and UHF narrowband radio systems, which has “really held us back” from fully incorporating existing advanced technologies that require broadband connectivity, McGinnis said.

“[FirstNet] will enable us to do what technology already should allow us to do today,” he said. “We don’t need new technology necessarily in EMS; we just need the ability to use what’s already out there.”

By being able to utilize electronic monitors that provide vital health indicators and share that information in real time via the much-anticipated broadband network, EMS personnel will provide better and more efficient treatment to patients at a time when each minute is crucial, McGinnis said. It certainly beats writing such information on a rubber glove, which acts as the “database” for many EMS personnel today, and taking the time to try to share it verbally with a doctor, he said.

“And these time-critical conditions are not just limited to trauma,” McGinnis said. “We now appreciate them for stroke and for heart attacks—there are very clear windows in which you can do something to save a person’s life.”

Video also can play a role in EMS, McGinnis said. In urban areas, there are so many trained paramedics and nearby hospitals that it may be rare that video of a patient will be needed. However, in rural areas—“where you’re lucky to get an EMT”—the ability for a doctor to view high-definition video of a patient in real time can be crucial in providing treatment guidance. It also could be vital in terms of making a preliminary diagnosis that could include redirecting the ambulance to a hospital that is better prepared to provide the necessary treatment, McGinnis said.

By leveraging modern technologies and broadband communications, EMS agencies not only can improve patient care but also save valuable resources, McGinnis said, providing the example of a car crash with a passenger complaining of abdominal pain.

“It would be really nice to be able to use a portable ultrasound to determine if there’s any internal bleeding,” McGinnis said. “Why? Because, if there is [internal bleeding], that patient needs a helicopter and needs to get to a trauma center right now. If they aren’t [bleeding internally], they have the ability to not take that $25,000 helicopter ride and go to the trauma center for that $10,000 visit. They can go to the local hospital and have their care started there.”