Austin-Travis County EMS Saves Real Lives on First Responders Live
Why are local emergency medical services on Fox's popular TV show?
By Richard Whittaker,
11:00AM, Wed. Jun. 19, 2019
There’s an old saying in the news industry: If it bleeds, it leads. There are easy ratings in human tragedy and accidents, from the combination of voyeurism, morbid curiosity, and genuine compassion for people in need. But in the world of emergency medical services, if it bleeds, it’s someone who needs help.
So when Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services decided to take part in Fox Television’s latest ride-along reality show First Responders Live it wasn’t about vicarious thrills, but instead about highlighting the work of its staff – and what makes ATCEMS a model agency.
For medic Bob Luddy, being on TV is nothing new. A veteran of ATCEMS, he was one of the EMTs featured in the short-lived 2018 series Nightwatch Nation on A&E. When that was canceled, he thought his TV days were over, and he admits he initially wasn’t interested in appearing in First Responders Live – even though it was the same producers, 44 Blue Productions – but was convinced to try out and was cast again. “Something about me must be compelling to somebody, I guess,” he laughed.
After appearing on two shows, Luddy has gotten used to having a camera crew around, and praised the TV folks for knowing how to behave during a call-out (“They make it their goal to not be in our way at all.”). It probably helps that his is one of the busiest ambulances, fielding a call roughly every 90 minutes. However, even that couldn’t steer the team away from what Luddy called “the white cloud syndrome, when we have ride-alongs and all of a sudden there’s this white cloud over us and we don’t get any calls.”
Luddy began his career in EMS in San Diego in the mid-Nineties. He’d originally planned to join the police, but admitted he really didn’t put much effort into that path in school, so he ended up as a waiter. “I hated doing that,” he said, and so he started looking into police academies, but then he had another idea. “It popped into my head, maybe I’ll try this ambulance thing.” He asked a friend who was a paramedic if he could do a ride-along, “and from the moment we went on that first call I knew that this was it.”
After a few years in California, he moved to Austin for a very specific reason. In most jurisdictions, EMS is folded into the fire department and often travel with firefighters, whereas in Austin the paramedics are still separate – or, as it’s known, a third-city-service organization – forming a trifecta with the police and fire departments. Keeping the agencies separate is a very deliberate decision (Austin’s Public Safety Committee considered and abandoned a proposal to merge ATCEMS and Austin Fire Department in 2015), and one that Luddy supports. In agencies where the fire department also provides the first medical care, he said, "It's just not practical to put a paramedic on every apparatus." In part, that's because of the years of extra medical training that medics and paramedics go through, and that's what really interested him. “I realized early on I wanted to focus on patient care, not firefighting,” said Luddy. “Austin EMS was the best place in the world to work as a paramedic, and that’s why I set my sights here.”
Yet that separate structure is one of the distinguishing details about ATCEMS that Public Information Officer Commander Mike Benavides hopes that First Responders Live will highlight. The department faces regular requests to be involved in shows – nine this year alone, according to Benavides, "many of whom we've said no to, some of them we've accommodated." Moreover, he works closely with the producers to ensure there are no violations of either patient confidentiality under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or of the Texas Public Information Act. The important thing, he added, is correctly balancing patient privacy with First Amendment compliance when it comes to media access.
However, Luddy praised the camera crews for their professionalism in respecting that saving lives comes first, and keeping up with the paramedics for what seems like a grueling schedule. Yet that's also a place that Luddy thinks Austin can be a leader in new best practices. Most paramedics work 24 hours on and 48 hours off; ATCEMS is 24 on, 72 off. ATCEMS introduced that 24/72 shift pattern in 2016, after consulting with external consultants. For Luddy, the ATCEMS structure is a balance point between keeping the ambulances and staff on the street with as little downtime as possible, while still maximizing rest and personal time for staff. "We're a public safety agency," he said, "and we have to provide service 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That's what we do."
Explaining what Austin's paramedics do is exactly why Luddy and ATCEMS agreed to be on the show in the first place. "We're kind of a mystery to most citizens," Luddy said. "Most people have a vague conception that we're an ambulance driver, and you call 911 and we show up and take you to the hospital, but a lot of people don't necessarily understand what skills we bring to the table, and what we can do to heal people before we get them to the hospital."
First Responders Live screens Wednesdays, 8pm Central on Fox. New episodes will also stream on Hulu.