Lift assists: Virginia Beach seeks fix for nonemergency calls that can tie up fire department resources


COURTHOUSE City Manager Dave Hansen said the fire department is reviewing the issue of lift-assists, nonemergency calls that often lead to Virginia Beach firefighters helping elderly or immobile people move within their own homes.

A recent report by WTKR-TV focused on a family that drew 1,100 nonemergency calls over three years, but the issue is a wider and growing one.

It’s also something other communities deal with.

Over the past three fiscal years, the Virginia Beach Fire Department saw responses for such calls double from 1,126 to 2,263 per year.

The calls involve people with limited ability to move, perhaps involving nonemergency medical issues or a fall that does not involve in an injury.

Virginia Beach firefighters have been injured while moving people on some of the calls, leading to lost time, according to the department and a union offical.

Hansen asked the department to review this issue earlier this summer, following a request for assistance by Bill Bailey, a city fire captain and president of the Virginia Beach Professional Firefighters Local 2924. Though the issue has been brewing for a while, Bailey said during an interview earlier this month that an injury to a firefighter made this a higher priority.

“In January, a firefighter was lifting a patient and he hurt his back,” Bailey said. “He was out a couple weeks.”

In an interview at City Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 16, Hansen said the goal is to find solutions to dealing with repeated nonemergency calls. The department will work with other agencies, including those that deal with health and human services.

Bailey, reached by telephone, said the city is working on a possible ordinance to address the issue, such as one that will allow it to recoup costs after a certain number of calls.

“We don’t want to deny anybody service,” Bailey said. “We want to stop abuse.”

District Chief Kenny Pravetz answered questions about the issue through a department spokesperson, offering that the issue has grown in recent years due to the city’s increasing population of senior citizens.

The calls have an impact upon resources such as fuel, mileage and maintenance cost, according to the email. Nonemergency calls may mean readiness issues when real emergencies arise.

The department is on a one- or two-month timeline to bring suggestions back to Hansen and the city council, and they are pursuing two ideas in coordination with other city agencies.

One, according to Pravetz, is a possible ordinance that would deter abuse by allowing the city to recover costs after a certain number of nonemergency calls. 

“We would build a policy to provide guidance and offer alternatives to the citizens in need of some kind of nonemergency assistance,” he wrote in the email.

Another approach is a long-term possibility, a “mobile integrated health” program for the city. This would not necessarily be a fire program, if it happens, according to the department. 

Such an approach can involve giving advice about resources to 911 callers rather than dispatching service in nonemergencies and either transport or referral to “a broad spectrum of appropriate care,” according to the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians, a national professional organization. 

“The fire department and emergency resources are becoming sort of the fallback assistance,” Bailey said. “That’s what we see as part of a growing problem. … More and more, as the population ages, people fall into dire straits, and they don’t have someone to help them. They’re looking for someone to help them.”

Art Kohn, a fire department spokesperson, said via email that the department provides “life safety” education to seniors, and this includes a specific “fire and fall prevention curriculum” for seniors.

Aging is a factor in some such cases, but discussion of this issue might include poverty and ongoing or emerging medical issues. 

A five-year study of lift assists in one community in Connecticut showed repeat users of emergency services for nonemergency purposes, with two-thirds of calls being generated by one third of the addresses studied. About half of the addresses generated return calls within a month, the study found.

Published in the peer-review Prehospital Emergency Care journal, the study recommended that lift assists may be an opportunity for intervention or further medical evaluation.

© 2016 Pungo Publishing Co. LLC

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