Houston Revolutionizes 911 Emergency Response with Toughpad-Based ETHAN Project

An estimated 240 million calls are made to 911 in the United States each year. Some of those calls involve medical issues that do not qualify as a true emergency and can be addressed during an appointment with a healthcare provider later that day or the next day.

However, these low-acuity calls often lead to unnecessary trips in ambulances, longer wait times in emergency rooms and the use of emergency response professionals’ time that could be spent helping patients in greater need.

To help alleviate the strain on these critical resources, the Houston Fire Department, in collaboration with the Houston Department of Health and Human Services, recently implemented an innovative new 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 it was utilized.

In the past, a 911 call in Houston 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. In total, this process takes an average of just under an hour, not including time spent in the ER or the time first responders spend completing necessary reports and updating the patient’s medical records. So when a patient calls 911 for a non-emergency, that ambulance is unavailable for at least an hour and unable to respond to other calls that could be urgent.

Now, during non-life-threatening situations, when appropriate, Houston Fire first responders utilize Toughpad rugged tablets to set up a teleconference between the patient and a trained emergency medicine physician over a dependable 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, Gonzalez said. He added 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 lightweight, fully-rugged, Windows tablet built to handle the bad weather, drops, spills, vibration and extreme temperatures that are part of a first responder’s daily life. The tablets are a favorite in the emergency medical services field and in fact, Houston Fire already used the device before the ETHAN Project was implemented.

“The project was created with a consumer grade solution in mind, but that turned out not to be a great idea,” Gonzalez said. “It was something additional for our EMS and fire crews to carry, and it just wasn’t built for this purpose. We field tested a few devices and they got destroyed in about a week.”

Integrated 4G LTE connectivity from Verizon makes the Toughpad the ideal platform to run the Cisco Jabber application that doctors use to connect with patients. The Toughpad also meets Houston Fire’s other requirements: Since the video encounters between doctors and patients are treated as medical records, the solution must meet security and HIPAA compliance requirements, and each videoconference must be able to be easily archived.

“For a long time, the city had been grappling with the issue of 911 calls for low acuity reasons,” Gonzalez said. “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.”

To learn more about the ETHAN project and watch the solution in action, visit https://youtu.be/5uXX8sQX214.