High-speed connectivity via FirstNet will let emergency-medical-service (EMS) personnel access and deliver information in a manner timely enough to save lives more often than today, FirstNet board member and EMS practitioner Kevin McGinnis said during a recent webinar on the subject.

“FirstNet is going to make a profound change in the way that EMS is practiced in the field,” McGinnis said during the webinar presented by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) office of EMS. “It’s going to allow us to make better decisions with more and better information at our fingertips in real time. I predict that EMS—over fire and law enforcement—will be the biggest user of FirstNet in the coming years.”

Ambulance service transformed from a “horizontal taxi-cab service” to a mobile medical service in the early 1970s and has continued to evolve with the introduction of greater on-scene capabilities as decades have passed, but communications in the sector have not advanced, McGinnis said.

“One thing that has not changed since modern EMS was born is the way we communicate,” he said. “The same land-mobile-radio [LMR] systems that we used in the early 1970s are the ones we’re using today.   

“By and large, those narrowband systems are not going to support us into the future.”

What EMS personnel need is reliable, high-speed connectivity that can support real-time multimedia communications, from database queries of a patient’s medical history to the delivery of vital-signs information or a video chat between a patient and a doctor at a remote location, McGinnis said. Currently, much of this information is available, but trying to share it via voice communications—the primary capability of LMR—is not efficient, he said.

“Voice communications need to be treated as what they are, which is a bottleneck, not facilitation,” McGinnis said. “The ability for a busy paramedic in the field to talk to a busy emergency-room doctor ... about a patient and what needs to be done—that’s a window of time that doesn’t happen as easily as it used to.

“So, it’s important that we [EMS personnel] are able to take data that we have at our fingertips, push it out and park it in the database. When a doctor is available, [the doctor] can pull the information from that database, consume it and push it out to me, the paramedic in the field. When I have spare moment, I can access the database and pull the information back.”

Providing EMS personnel access to relevant information as quickly as possible is critical, because a patient with a potentially fatal injury may not have much time to receive life-saving treatment, McGinnis said, noting that the so-called “Golden Hour” may not always be 60 minutes.