CLEARWATER — The paramedics were in the 7-Eleven parking lot for barely a minute when the first call came in Tuesday.
Chris Johnson, heading into the convenience store, turned on his heel and got back into the driver's seat of the SUV packed with medical equipment. Within a few minutes, he and paramedic Carlos Rivera were outside a soup kitchen checking the blood sugar of a man experiencing a seizure.
Johnson, 36, and Rivera, 23, were staffing the Clearwater Fire & Rescue Department's new "peak unit," designed to respond to medical emergencies during hours that experience a higher call load. The unit is in the third week of a two-month trial to find out if it can take pressure off a system that has seen an increase in EMS call volume of about 4 to 5 percent each year, said Chief Scott Ehlers.
"Everyone is trying to come up with a creative way to handle the increase in calls without increasing the cost to the taxpayers," Ehlers said.
The unit is on the road from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday mainly downtown, an area that often has more calls than the rest of the city. The department has seen a 10 to 15 percent increase in call volume during those hours, which Ehlers attributes to the influx of workers coming into the area.
Following the downtown pilot, the department will try out the unit for a month on the east side of Clearwater along the U.S. 19 corridor, where the peak hours are from noon and 10 p.m.
The unit — basically a Chevrolet Suburban decked out with lights, sirens, medical equipment and two paramedics — is staffed now by paramedics who volunteer for overtime, which is expected to cost about $30,000 for both trials. Depending on the results, Ehlers said he will pursue funding for the next fiscal year from Pinellas County, which contracts with 18 fire departments to provide emergency medical service.
The early results of the pilot are promising: The unit runs an average of 12 to 15 calls per shift, Ehlers said.
That frees up the engine, ladder truck and rescue truck at Fire Station 45, which handles downtown calls, to respond to fires or medical emergencies that need more manpower. If those are free, units from other stations or even other departments that are obligated to respond if the closest station is tied up can get to emergency situations in their own territories more quickly.
"It becomes a domino effect," Ehlers said.
Officials from St. Petersburg Fire & Rescue came up with the idea last year while trying to determine how to combat a call volume that shot from about 42,000 to 51,000, or 17 percent, from 2012 to 2015. The department put two peak units on the road Jan. 1 in downtown St. Petersburg that have been successful so far, said spokesman Lt. Steve Lawrence.
Pinellas Park runs a similar unit in the area of 49th Street and Park Boulevard when there are enough paramedics on shift to staff it, said Chief Guy Keirn. If the trial results are positive, it's likely more will be deployed around the county, said Craig Hare, the county's director of EMS and fire administration.
On Tuesday, after the seizure call in Clearwater, the paramedics drove the peak unit back to their unofficial headquarters at the 7-Eleven on Court Street to wait for the next emergency.
They stayed long enough for Johnson to get in the shave he missed that morning after agreeing to take the shift. Then another call came in from a senior living community a half-mile away, and they were off again.
Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow @kathrynvarn.