The Speed of Super Heroes (2008)

Super Heros

At 9:38 p.m., Saturday, March 14, a tornado touched down in Atlanta, the first in the city's long history.

Thousands were gathered in the Georgia Dome for the NCAA basketball conference. Had the game not gone into overtime, most would have been headed home, precisely as winds peeled off massive pieces of siding and ripped windows from high-rises, showering the streets below with broken glass and debris.

  Survivor Grady

Counting Minutes, Not Money

The Speed of Super Heroes

Grady Poison Control Answers 24/7

Even so, the number injured was high. Despite a direct hit to their Grady headquarters, including temporary loss of power, the Grady Emergency Medical Services (EMS)—the ambulance service responsible for all of the city's 911 transport—responded within minutes to more than 200 tornado-related calls.

People sometimes forget that the Grady EMS is not just an ambulance system, says Eric Ossmann, the Emory emergency medicine physician who serves as medical director of the largest and oldest hospital-based EMS system in the United States. It actually is a pre-hospital system of care, with multiple people acting in concert to dispatch an ambulance, initiate appropriate early treatment, and make the right decision about where to take each patient. Almost half of the tornado-related callers were treated by paramedics and required no hospitalization.

Grady EMS is on track to handle 100,000 responses in 2008, ranging from possible heart attacks to motor collisions. The time of response often rivals that of super-heroes. Recently, when two Atlanta police officers were wounded after a suspect opened fire with an automatic weapon, Grady EMS units were on the scene four minutes after the shooting. Within 20 minutes, both officers had been stabilized and were at Grady being evaluated by Emory trauma surgeons. Both survived.

Response times like this help account for what Ossmann calls "an incredible save rate" by the EMS team and the doctors at Grady and other hospitals served by the program.

"We were lucky that the tornado was not worse," says Ossmann. Luckier yet, say many Atlantans, that the Grady EMS service remains viable and ready for what might come.