Downtown traffic is delaying emergency responders from reaching victims, a dangerous growing pain for the developing city.
Fort Lauderdale’s urban core is undergoing an unprecedented building boom. The burgeoning downtown population adds cars to the road, but there’s more to it than that, Fort Lauderdale fire-rescue personnel say:
— Roads or lanes are sometimes closed at high-rise construction sites.
— Traffic-calming devices like roundabouts and speed humps were added in recent years to side streets, as residents complained about more and more cut-through traffic. But the calming devices present problems for emergency vehicles in a hurry.
— Lane “diets” (the reduction of driving lanes) and on-street parking came into vogue, leaving nowhere for drivers to go when rescue trucks come upon them with lights swirling and sirens blaring.
— Drawbridges and the railroad tracks — features of downtown Fort Lauderdale that always presented challenges in getting around — are still just as busy. In fact, there are more trains now, with the launch last year of the Brightline passenger rail.
— Condos downtown reach 40 stories tall now, adding precious minutes to the time it takes rescue workers to reach an upper-floor resident in distress. Because of that, the fire department says it must reduce its target response time downtown from six minutes to four, allowing two minutes for elevator time — an even more difficult goal to reach. “When the person’s waiting for a [defibrillator] or waiting for oxygen, that two minutes is an eternity,” fire-rescue spokesman Stephen Gollan said. “It’s the difference between life and death.”
As the city struggles with its blast of growth, fire officials say it’s critical that some changes be made. Fort Lauderdale is considering ideas it has never attempted, to add emergency responder units around the congested downtown.
“We’re seeing our response times slightly increasing,” Gollan said, “and we’re currently looking for solutions. … We’re doing forecasts and we see what’s coming ahead.”
Developers like AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which is proposing an apartment tower on the south side of downtown, have been asked to include an EMS substation on the ground floor, Mayor Dean Trantalis said recently. The city is looking at ways to add another substation near Broward Boulevard and Federal Highway, or in the city’s Holiday Park at Sunrise Boulevard and Federal Highway, fire-rescue officials said.
A new fire station, No. 8, one of the last to be built from a 2004 bond issue, will open in December or January.
Station 8 will be east of the train tracks and south of the river, at 1701 SW 1st Ave., improving response times. The city also is buying shorter fire trucks for downtown, so they can navigate the tight corners more easily, Gollan said. In addition, new City Manager Chris Lagerbloom is having some traffic-speed-reducing devices on side streets removed, opening some streets for EMS vehicles, Gollan said.
Even with those changes, a four-minute response time could be difficult for locations that aren’t immediately near a fire or EMS station. Rush hour downtown floods the streets with a wall of cars.
“It’s definitely a lot more congested,” driver-engineer and paramedic Keith Garner said from behind the wheel of a fire-rescue ladder truck this week.
Garner has seen the downtown morph over the past two decades, sprouting construction cranes and filling the traffic lanes.
At the same time, lanes for driving were taken away and given to people on bikes, or on foot. Electric-scooter riders zip across roadways, often recklessly.
“Look at this,” he said, gesturing to a Sailboat Bend side street, Southwest Second Court, interrupted by triangular “chicanes” that required him to veer the 49-foot fire truck one direction, then the next. “Does this look like a street to you?”
The chicanes were marked with traffic cones, preparing for their removal at the new city manager’s request. Lagerbloom said the neighborhood didn’t like them, either, and he’s sympathetic to the need for emergency vehicles to get where they’re going.
“I don’t want them to have to navigate obstructions,” he said.
‘We count seconds’
Response times downtown started rising in 2015, according to fire department data. That year, the average time from dispatch to the arrival of personnel at a scene was six minutes, 45 seconds.
The following year, it rose to six minutes 53 seconds.
In 2017, it was seven minutes three seconds.
The city had to add two ambulances and increase personnel on other emergency vehicles just to get the average response time back to 2016 levels.
Now, the response times — on average are lagging again, Gollan said.
Downtown drivers have experienced for themselves the increasing crush of rush-hour traffic. In an emergency, though, even a brief delay can be deadly.
“We count seconds,” Battallion Chief Greg May said, adding that his father was saved by a quick-acting person when he dropped from cardiac arrest on a tennis court.
“Hold your breath,” May said. “I’ll tell you when four minutes is up.”
Rushing to the rescue
Driving the point home, an emergency call came in from south of the river. A woman in her early 50s was feeling faint on the top floor of a parking garage.
She’d called a co-worker to say she didn’t feel right. The co-worker called 911.
Garner flipped on the lights and sirens and steered the truck through heavy, rush-hour traffic on Broward Boulevard. Because the truck was already on the road at the time, and not far away, it arrived in just over two minutes — about four minutes from the time the call came in.
The woman was still alive, sitting in her car with the air conditioning running, her co-workers pacing nervously about.
Within minutes, her heart stopped, and Garner, May, Gollan and others on the scene removed her from the car. Garner gave CPR.
The ambulance, battling heavy traffic, trailed far behind, with a response time of nine minutes, seven seconds, according to the fire department. The fire-truck crew continued life-saving efforts as they wheeled her to the elevator, and to the ambulance waiting below.
“This area is the hardest area to get to,” May said of the area south of the river, west of U.S. 1. “That goes back to what I was saying. Seconds count. At the end of the day, these guys gave her a fighting chance.”
Doctors at Broward Health worked for another hour to save her, but she did not survive.
Lenny Steinbaum is one of the downtowners who have contacted city elected officials with concerns about emergency response times.