In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, John Hamilton, operations supervisor at MedStar Mobile Healthcare, shared that the rainfall on Aug. 22 led to more ambulance calls and slower response times.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

Alexis Allison: Can you start by just telling us what it means to be an operations supervisor with MedStar?

John Hamilton: OK, sure. It’s the job of my dreams, really. It’s what I enjoy doing most. Overall, what I do, my responsibilities are basically running the operations for MedStar, the ambulance service, on a day-to-day basis, making sure that our ambulances are available to respond to calls and that crew needs are met, and our customers — the patients — are being taken care of.

Allison: Well, I know that yesterday, Aug. 22, we experienced record rainfall in North Texas. I’m wondering what that meant for you and your team?

Hamilton: Well, we have experienced some adverse weather conditions before, but yesterday, like you said, was very much of a record. It added a little bit of stress, but also the call volume that we experience normally due to a few more accidents on the road than what we would normally experience on a day-to-day basis. And response times, unfortunately, extended a little bit longer.

MedStar ResponsesAverage Response Time
Monday, Aug. 154587:22
Monday, Aug. 225157:57
The number of MedStar responses increased 12% between Aug. 15 and Aug. 22, the day North Texas experienced record rainfall. Source: MedStar

Allison: How else does flooding or heavy rains impact your work?

Hamilton: When we don’t have rain for a long time, the roads get a little bit slicker when the rain first comes down. So that’s just another hazard that we have to overcome. They’re big, heavy ambulances that take a little bit more time to stop or slow down than your normal vehicle does. And then, just overall, some of our routing has to be changed because of it. There have been some road closures that we might normally go one direction that we have to maybe turn around or divert a different direction to get to our call.

Allison: What do you tell the people who are driving these ambulances when they’re preparing for a day like yesterday?

Hamilton: Well, we have training that we all go through, before we even get into the driver’s seat of the ambulance. We don’t just toss them the keys and say, ‘Here you go.’ There’s what we call ‘12 failsafes.’ And generally, those things are guidelines for us to follow. So normally you hear about the two-second rule when you’re in your own vehicle, we back that up to four and then on a day like yesterday, we extended it even further. Just takes us a lot longer to stop and slow down, and we’re always looking ahead of us to make sure that traffic isn’t stopped for some reason that is going to cause us to stop rapidly, too.

Allison: Are any of the other 12 failsafes impacted by flooding?

Hamilton: A little bit. We keep a side-to-side barrier, as well. We want to see what’s on either side of us. Sometimes you’re going to pass other vehicles on a road that’s got some water standing on it. So ideally, we want to let other vehicles pass first so we’re not both passing in the water at the same time. Give us a little bit of a less flooding chance that you got two vehicles in there and they’re both raising the water level with their wake and whatever. 

It’s about speed also and lane changing. We take about 12 seconds, or ideally we should take 12 seconds to make a lane change, see what’s beside us either way, and we want to make sure we’re doing all those things safely. And then, as hard as it was raining yesterday, visibility was really bad. 

I was driving up just the tollway, and there was a pretty good-sized truck in front of me that basically disappeared, because I couldn’t see it anymore. I knew it was there. But that causes me to slow down as well. I don’t know how quick I’m going to come up on a vehicle. He may stop suddenly and I can’t see him for a bit, so we all had to just slow down and take it easy.

Allison: Were you in an ambulance yesterday?

Hamilton: I was in my supervisor vehicle, which is a pretty good size Dodge Ram 2500. Not quite as big as an ambulance but, not too far off of it weightwise.

Allison: I assume that you have driven ambulances in heavy rains before. Can you tell us what that’s like personally? 

Hamilton: That’s a little more daunting when you’re driving your emergency vehicle. Just regularly driving can be a little bit nerve-wracking: Getting pelted with some heavy rains, visibility’s hard, you got to slow down for it. But then when we light the sirens due to an emergency call, then we want to get there, but we want to get there safely. If we’re driving crazy, the opportunity for us to have an accident increases dramatically. Unfortunately, sometimes, for our patient, it’s going to take a little bit longer to get there, just because we’ve got to do the things safe ourselves. And if we don’t do it right, then we become patients ourselves and that’s no good for anybody.

Allison: Is there anything that you’d like to see improve the next time that we have heavy rains?

Hamilton: It’d be nice if the people that didn’t need to be on the road were off the road. I’d like to see that. And then sometimes, unfortunately, people utilize 911 when it’s not a true emergency. We’re going to respond anyway, but if we can cut down on the calls that could possibly wait, or you could see your own doctor for, that would certainly cut down on the amount of calls that we have to run on a daily basis.

Allison: Can you tell us a little bit more about those calls that may not necessarily require an ambulance?

Hamilton: Well, it’s individual. What may be a sickness or an illness to you may not be a sickness or illness to me. Sometimes, it’s just a cough that’s been going on for a couple of weeks, we’ve seen those kinds of things. It’s like, ‘OK, does it need an ambulance today, since it’s been going on?’ I don’t want to downplay anybody’s emergency, or their illness. But sometimes, it’s just, call the doctor and go see your own personal physician. Those things can be taken care of a whole lot quicker sometimes than going to the emergency room.

Allison: What advice would you give someone who thinks they’re having a medical emergency and it might be flooding nearby? What should they do?

Hamilton: They should probably be prepared to wait just a little bit longer than normal. Call us if you need us — we’re coming, we’ll be there. If it’s an emergency, call us. If it can wait, maybe try to let it wait.

John Hamilton is the operations supervisor at MedStar. (Alexis Allison | Fort Worth Report)

Allison: Is there anything else that you’d like to share or add?

Hamilton: Well, one of the things I think is important when you’re driving in this kind of rain and the heavy flooding, is, you’ve got to slow down, especially in the flooded areas. If you go too fast, you start to lose that traction and you can get swept away pretty easily. 

You can get swept away in just 6 inches of water, moving water. Just standing there, you can get swept away. But if you get a foot or two like we experienced yesterday of moving water, that can move an ambulance down the road. It can sweep it away. It can certainly sweep away a car. So you got to ‘turn around, don’t drown’ as we say. Or just take it really slow and easy going through those floodwaters. 

Allison: Thank you so much, John. 

Hamilton: Sure.

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Alexis Allison covers health for the Fort Worth Report. When she can, she'll slip in an illustration or two. Allison is a former high school English teacher and hopes her journalism is likewise educational....