Portable suction units used by EMS personnel are utilized infrequently and often are powered by batteries. Lack of use and inspection often results in failure of the device when it is needed. The purpose of this study was to examine the incidence of portable suction unit failure in a rural EMS system and to identify the reasons for failures.
A convenience sample was obtained through both random inspections by the staff of a regional EMS council and data from twice monthly checks reported by respective EMS agencies following a standard protocol for each unit. A standard protocol was used, including checking the vacuum level on each suction unit and inspecting the tubing, canister, and battery. Each inspector assessed whether the unit was capable of achieving 300 mmHg of suction within four seconds. Also, the unit was inspected for any signs of misalignment or dry rot of the gasket, kinking of suction hose, damage to the suction canister, weak/dead battery, or defective pump. Findings were recorded.
Over a two-year period, 9,631 suction unit inspections were completed. There were 233 failures (2.4%) noted. The majority (126, 54.1%) were due to battery failure. Seventy-three units failed due to other reasons (not recorded, switch failure, battery not seated). Ten inspections failed due to incorrect assembly. Nineteen inspections failed due to defects with the suction canister. Five inspections failed due to kinked/disconnected suction tubing.
Only a relatively small percentage of inspections of suction units revealed failures (4.6% Advanced Life Support, 8.6% Basic Life Support) using the above-stated criteria. However, given the importance of airway management and potential complications associated with airway compromise, including aspiration pneumonia, hypoxia, and hemodynamic instability, this is of concern relative to the morbidity and mortality that could be related to airway failure. Due to the relative infrequency of use and the nature of portable suction units, the potential for lack of maintenance and deficiencies in routine inspection may impact the functional status of these devices in EMS agencies. Clearly, improved documentation of battery installation date, charging in accordance with manufacturer recommendations, and thorough inspection of the portable suction unit in its entirety will ensure readiness of these devices. Additionally, more rigorous documentation and analysis of inspections should be a focus of EMS agencies.