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San Antonio paramedics using video chat to coach bystanders during 911 calls

"It's basically having a paramedic there with you that gets that initial, general impression from you," San Antonio Fire Department spokesperson Joe Arrington said.

SAN ANTONIO — People who dial 911 from a cell phone in San Antonio may video chat with an emergency dispatcher. 

To connect, callers must only click on the link the dispatcher sends, sometimes seconds after they pick up the phone. 

This 'GoodSAM' technology allows trained paramedics to coach bystanders through life-saving procedures while first responders are en route. 

"It's a wild success," SAFD spokesperson Joe Arrington said. "This is the future of 9-1-1, of medicine, and of pre-hospital care." 

San Antonio's fire department was among the first agencies in the U.S. to use the technology, which experts developed in the United Kingdom. 

The special computer program allows dispatchers, who are all trained paramedics, to assess situations before sending an emergency response unit. 

The technology can even determine a person's vital signatures, like the heart rate, through the phone's camera. 

"It gives us a minute or two advance," Arrington said. "Anything we can know ahead of time is an advantage."

Since implementing the technology a year ago, SAFD has handled virtually an average of 14 911 calls each day without sending first responders. Before GoodSAM, a dispatcher would've sent a crew to assess the situation without knowing whether it actually merited an emergency response. 

"It eliminates the mystery," Arrington said. "99 percent of the time someone calls 911, they say, 'This is what's happening,' and we had to take their word for it.'"

Now, Arrington says dispatchers can instruct 911 callers to follow-up with their primary care physician. Those paramedics can also secure a Taxi for callers with mild injuries that require medical attention. 

Firefighters like Arrington benefit, too. 

"They can start pre-planning in their heads," he said. "Like, 'Okay, we can hit a hydrant here and we need a lay-in here,' or 'This is where we need to stage.'"

All 56 SAFD dispatchers are trained with the program, Arrington said. The department currently has the software installed on four of its desktops. 

It's possible, Arrington said, that the fire department installs the program on more computers, though It's not yet clear if that's necessary. 

Arrington said the GoodSAM developers are working on extending the program to emergency workers in the field, allowing first responders riding in firetrucks to view scenes in real-time. 

"Telemedicine is the wave of the future," Arrington said. "It's basically having a paramedic there with you."