Firefighters responded to at least 10 times more medical emergencies than fire-related calls across the U.S. last year, The New York Times reported yesterday.

What's more, the number of medical calls that have sent firefighters flying down the fire pole has more than tripled since 1980.

Often faster to arrive on scene than an ambulance, firefighters are now some of the more frequent medical first responders—a dubious promotion, which has turned them, like some ER care providers, into quasi-regular doctors for those who lack health insurance and regular medical care.

In cities such as Washington, D.C., where some neighborhoods have many uninsured residents, some fire engine companies bill as many as 80 percent of their emergencies as medical. The calls can be for anything from passed-out drunks to assaults to stomach pains, the Times reports.

Like many aspects of the health care debate, there is hesitancy to err on the side of cost effectiveness when life may be on the line. "People call and say, 'I'm having trouble breathing,'" Dennis Jenkerson, the St. Louis, Mo., fire chief, told the Times. "Can they afford to wait five and a half, six minutes for an ambulance? No. Seconds count with most medical emergencies."

Doubts on the front lines, however, can run high. As one D.C. firefighter told the Times: "I joined the force to battle blazes, not to be an emergency room doctor… It just seems like so many people use us as their primary care providers."

Image courtesy of lemoncat1 via Flickr