WESLACO — It’s been used to evacuate a hospital during Hurricane Harvey, served as a refuge for law enforcement officers to cool down in the middle of a standoff and now it’s also being used to help U.S. Border Patrol agents treat migrants suffering from heat-related injuries.
The ambus, housed at the Weslaco Fire Department, is unlike any ambulance you’ve seen — and yet not really. While it features all of the equipment found inside a traditional ambulance, this one can treat up to 20 patients at a time, making it a valuable asset for any type of mass response.
It would take 10 ambulances to handle as many patients as the ambus, Weslaco Fire Chief and Emergency Manager Antonio “Tony” Lopez said Thursday.
And during a mass emergency situation, if “you remove 10 ambulances from the equation, it’s going to impact the whole region,” Lopez said
The ambus was purchased through the help of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council and TRAC-V, a group of hospitals and ambulance service providers. Both entities partnered with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to purchase the vehicle and initially housed it in Willacy County in 2012.
“I think at that time, probably around 2010-2011, when we were having those meetings, there wasn’t a plan by the state to push one into the (Rio Grande) Valley just yet,” Lopez said about the locally-owned state asset. “So they said, ‘Well, we’re thinking about it, but it’s going to be some time.’ And the Valley said, ‘No. We need one.’”
In 2016, the ambus was transferred to Weslaco, and Hurricane Harvey was one of its first missions. Four crews of seven were deployed throughout 18 days, evacuating a hospital and a nursing home along the way.
It takes seven people to man the ambus, and the crew can perform everything from the simple to the complex.
“We can do as simple as giving you a Band-Aid (or) we can go as high as restarting your heart if you’re in cardiac arrest,” Lopez said.
There are 13 other ambuses across the state, but none are busier than the one housed in Weslaco, which averages over 100 calls per year to assist a number of other entities.
Equipped with five air conditioning units, two mist fans, a pop-up roof, water and IV equipment, the bus is especially handy to treat heat-related illnesses.
“Last year we had a standoff in the town of Premont and they had been there about four or five hours, and a lot of the troopers, sheriff’s officers, they were going down with heat exhaustion because they had their full gear on,” Lopez said. “So when they knew that our asset was available, they called us and we responded to Premont and we set up a rehab for all the law enforcement officers.”
The ambus, the only one south of San Antonio, has already received 45 service calls this fiscal year, which began in October. At least three of them have been made by federal authorities to treat undocumented migrants.
On May 16, Border Patrol agents detained a group of about 200 immigrants near the city of Granjeno and many of them exhibited signs of dehydration and other heat-related injuries. One woman fainted and five people were ultimately transported to Mission Regional Medical Center.
The ambus crew, along with the Mission Fire Department, assisted 108 people whose medical condition varied. More than half just needed water and a cool place to sit, while others needed IVs and further medical treatment.
“What we see there is obviously dehydration,” ambus driver and paramedic Carlos Hernandez said.
“Some have not eaten for days,” Lt. Paramedic J.D. Pena added.
Agents lined the group up and 24 were taken into the ambus at a time.
“They just wanted to say in there. They (felt) safer,” Pena said. “You have to understand they also have kids (with them).”
Lopez said responding to those types of calls is no different than what they do on a daily basis.
“We’re going to respond with the same professionalism and training that we respond to each call,” he said. “That’s just another call for us. It’s no different than you calling from a parking lot in our city.”
Lopez also credited Border Patrol for recognizing the medical need.
“They’re doing an awesome job. They really are. Their mission is not medical; their mission is border security,” he said. “They’re doing a very good job to recognize that it’s spilling (over) to a realm where that’s not their mission.”
Just this past week, 16-year-old Carlos Gregorio Hernandez-Vasquez died while at the Weslaco Border Patrol station, located next door to the Weslaco fire station where the ambus is housed. Though the teen’s cause of death is not yet known, staff there previously diagnosed him with influenza.
Federal authorities also temporarily shut down the Central Processing Center in McAllen this week after 32 migrants were diagnosed with the flu.