Over the past 20 years, a special team at the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department has rushed around South Florida, preventing venomous snake bites from turning fatal.
The unit is so renowned and its access to special antivenom drugs so unique that it is also a lead responder to snake bites across the country.
But the program will soon change.
The Venom Response Team, known as Venom One, is restructuring its staff and hours. Once consisting of three full-time paramedics that responded 24/7, the team will downsize to just one person who will work 40-hour weeks. Other Fire Rescue emergency paramedics will respond to any bites after-hours and on weekends.
With Miami a port of entry for exotic animals, Venom One has the largest antivenom bank in the U.S. It currently works with hospitals and poison control centers across the country to transport and administer the medications.
But as Lt. Scott Mullin told Sundial, the restructuring could impact the team's response times and effectiveness.
WLRN: What does the restructuring entail and is there a risk to it?
Mullin: We're a 24/7 unit staffed with one person per shift. I work a 24-hour shift. I start at 7 in the morning and work till the next day. Right at this point, the director wants to restructure the unit and take my position and just have one person on a 40-hour week—our captain—running the the unit. If it's after hours, they're going to utilize EMS captains to run the antivenom up to you.
I haven't had a chance to talk to them to get exactly why we're doing [the restructuring.] In the past when they've tried to restructure us, it has been budget issues. It's hard to treat emergencies on a 40-hour work week. This is going to put a little bit of a delay possibly into it and that's the part that I feel bad about because I know when I'm on duty I'm going to jump up and grab the proper antivenom and get there as fast as I can. And it helps because I've seen so many bites. So that experience of 20 years of doing this—it's hard to teach it to someone just in a month or so.
The Venom Response Team has been around for 20 years. This is the 20th year. Why did a national venom response program get started in Miami-Dade County?
In 1998, a gentleman was bitten by a black mamba [snake] down in South Dade. Miami-Dade Fire Rescue received a call for that bite and along with 12 other agencies urgently started searching for the antivenom to treat that. This is not a medicine that is made here in the United States obviously. These are foreign snakes. There's no FDA-approved medication. So a hospital couldn't keep this medication. Only zoos with a special license can keep it and us. So a young lieutenant Al Cruz working in Sweetwater heard the [black mamba] call go out. He knew someone who had the medicine on hand. He went and was able to get that medicine. They were able to save that man's life, and a spark went off in Cruz's head. And he formed the unit in 1998. I think that year they had six bites here. Steadily, it's grown till now our total counts over 1,600 venomous bites that we've treated.
Where in Florida do these bites occur?
Well we cover over 18 hospitals here in Dade and Broward. We will go up as far as West Palm Beach for a bite and down to the Keys. We have a lot of the bites from our native venomous snakes, which is the water moccasin, and the snake bites happen typically west of Krome [Avenue] out west towards the Everglades and out west of I-75 up in Broward. Those areas still have water reserves and stuff which are beautiful, but they also harbor the water moccasins.
This program is really unique, not just here in the area but the whole country. You recently responded to bites in Michigan. I'm just curious how nobody else has duplicated this or why?
We had a cobra bite in Michigan about a week and a half ago and then I guess a few days later we had actually a goblin Viper bite in Michigan. It's kind of like that Kevin Costner movie where, 'if you build it, they will come.' Our reputation has gotten out there, and we are seen as a resource. We keep over 50 different antivenoms.
Do you administer the antivenoms or do you take it to the hospital?
Sometimes people have reactions to [antivenoms], so we always administer in the hospital. And we physically don't administer it. The doctors and the nurses do it but we stay there to kind of hold hands and tell them how to reconstitute it. I explain to the patient what's going on. I explain to the family because a lot of families are over in the corner terrified to ask any questions. The doctor and the nurses don't have time to talk to them, so I'll go.