To help alleviate the strain on critical resources, the Houston Fire Department, in collaboration with the Houston Department of Health and Human Services, recently implemented a solution that is transforming the way emergency professionals respond to low-acuity 911 calls.

Using Panasonic Toughpad rugged tablets on the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network, Houston Fire’s ETHAN (Emergency TeleHealth and Navigation) Project has been successful in avoiding costly ambulance trips and ER visits in 80 percent of the cases where the system was used. The system was implemented in 2014.

In the past, a 911 call typically resulted in firefighters, EMTs and paramedics responding quickly to a patient’s location, conducting a preliminary evaluation and transporting the patient via ambulance to see a doctor in a nearby emergency room. This does not include time spent in the ER or the time spent completing necessary reports and updating the patients’ medical records.

Now, during non-life-threatening situations, when appropriate, Houston Fire first responders use Toughpad tablets to set up a teleconference between the patient and a trained emergency medicine physician over a Verizon Wireless mobile broadband connection. By reviewing the patient’s vital signs remotely and asking the patient a series of questions, the physician can make an informed determination whether a trip to the ER in an ambulance is truly needed.

In the first six months of the program, about 1,200 patient encounters were managed remotely via a Toughpad, says Dr. Michael Gonzalez, ETHAN Project program director and association medical director for the Houston Fire Department. He adds that response from both patients and first responders has been overwhelmingly positive, and he is fielding calls from communities across the country looking to implement their own version of the program.

The ETHAN Project is made possible with the Toughpad FZ-G1—a fully rugged, Windows tablet built to handle the bad weather, drops, spills, vibration and extreme temperatures.

“For a long time, the city had been grappling with the issue of 911 calls for low acuity reasons,” Gonzalez says. “This is the first program of its kind, and the first time that we’ve given staff the capability to do something immediately at the source of the problem.”

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