A patient's sense of security and the potential, too often realized, for back injuries among emergency responders have led Southwest Ambulance to include two "bariatric" ambulances in its fleet.

Each unit is designed to make it easier to transport patients who are severely overweight.

The unit, which is wider than a regular ambulance to accommodate the extra-wide gurney and still leave room for emergency crews to work, also features a winch system to simplify lifting the patient into the vehicle, according to Southwest's Rob Lund, an EMT intermediate.

The new gurney, which is about 5 or 6 inches wider across than the standard type, can hold up to 1,600 pounds.

It's not that the old gurneys were too weak to carry the morbidly obese passengers the ambulance service helps, says Southwest EMS administrator Rebecca Merrell. But sometimes the straps were tight or had to be extended. The side safety rails couldn't always be lifted in the narrower gurneys. And patients felt both less secure and embarrassed.

"This really keeps dignity" intact, she says.

The ambulance itself has a couple of interesting features, starting with a hydraulic lift system at the back that will lower the end of the ambulance 8 inches or so. It has a pulley system that relieves the strain on staffers, who must simply guide the heavy-set patient's gurney up the built-in ramp, the work provided by the winch.

The new capability comes with some tricky issues, Merrell acknowledged.

Emergency crews are not going to take the time to wait for one of the units in a dire crisis where every second counts. The other ambulances can carry the load, just not as conveniently.

And they're not going to start asking people who call 911 what the patient weighs. But they hope that learning the unit is available will encourage people who need it to ask for it.

Because so many health problems are related to morbid obesity, Merrell says, emergency crews may respond to the homes of some heavy people repeatedly and it's likely some addresses will be recognized by dispatchers as places where the new unit would be helpful.

Most of the time, she says, the request for that unit comes from the fire department that is already on the scene and knows it would be useful.

One unit is usually at the operations center in case it's needed while the other one's out circulating. And they certainly carry patients who are not overweight, as well.

E-mail: lois@desnews.com