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Fire department faces growing number of calls

Albuquerque Fire Rescue Chief Paul Dow talks about how the department has coped with more calls at a news conference Tuesday at Civic Plaza. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Albuquerque Fire Rescue Chief Paul Dow talks about how the department has coped with more calls at a news conference Tuesday at Civic Plaza. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque Fire Rescue Chief Paul Dow says he does not mind seeing his crew work hard and work fast.

But the chief says the city’s growing demand for service means his department is often moving at a frenetic pace.

“There’s nothing wrong with being a busy department,” Dow said. “But there’s something wrong with being too busy to where it’s affecting our ability to respond efficiently.”

AFR responded to 109,746 calls last year – almost 29,000, or 35% more than it did in 2013 – far more than peer cities such as El Paso, Tucson and Oklahoma City handled, according to numbers compiled by AFR.

The growing workload translates to increasing response times; it now takes AFR 52 seconds longer to reach a scene than it did in 2013.

In highlighting those and other figures Tuesday, Dow and city officials outlined how the department has and will continue to evolve. Only about 12% of today’s calls are fire-related; the overwhelming majority are for emergency medical services.

Mayor Tim Keller said those 911 calls reflect many broader city challenges, from poverty to addiction.

Many of AFR’s responses “are about all of these other things,” Keller said during a news conference on Civic Plaza. “This is the reality today in a lot of cities, but especially ours.”

AFR has seen calls for nearly every category of medical emergency rise over the last five years, including overdoses (up 14%), stabbings and shootings (up 70%), and heat and cold exposure (up 171%).

But no category has seen an increase like the unconscious/unknown category. These calls are often referred to as “down-and-outs” or public inebriation calls. AFR responded to 9,124 such calls in 2018, up from 3,881 in 2013.

To handle that increase without unnecessarily tying up fire engines and other vehicles better used for more critical situations, the city last year launched a Basic Life Support Rescue Program specifically to handle “down-and-out” calls.

A news conference was held last year to announce that the Albuquerque Fire Department was changing its name to Albuquerque Fire Rescue. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

A news conference was held last year to announce that the Albuquerque Fire Department was changing its name to Albuquerque Fire Rescue. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

AFR last week added a second Basic Life Support-specific rescue truck and additional firefighters to the program, which now responds to calls from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. seven days a week out of two Southeast Albuquerque fire stations.

Before the expansion, the program operated just four days a week and responded to six or seven calls each day, according to Emily Jaramillo, AFR’s deputy chief for emergency services. In the first week with the new truck and staff, Basic Life Support responded to 72 calls.

“We’re trying to free up (resources) – basically looking at the whole system and how we can make the system more efficient,” she said.

Jaramillo said AFR’s HEART program has also helped conserve first responder resources by deploying community paramedics to interact directly with citizens who have a history of frequent 911 calls.

Some individuals, she said, will call 911 because they do not know how to get a prescription or a doctor’s appointment or, in some cases, because they are lonely.

The HEART program – short for Home Engagement and Alternative Response Team – has enrolled about 80 people and has reduced call volume among them by 59 percent, Jaramillo said.

“I feel like a good analogy (for HEART) is the fire marshal – we have the fire code, and it helps prevent buildings from catching on fire,” Jaramillo said. “I feel like this is the preventative program on the medical side to prevent people form using 911” for basic medical needs.

Dow said his department has also made other tweaks to enhance efficiency, such as having firefighters perform their physicals when they are off duty rather than taking hours away from a work shift.

The department is also trying to increase public awareness about the best way to use 911.

The chief said some callers think they will get faster treatment at a hospital if they arrive in an ambulance and therefore call 911 for non-emergency problems. But the ambulance delivery, he said, “doesn’t mean you’ll get seen by a doctor any sooner.”

AFR is also attempting to educate the public about “down-and-outs,” specifically asking citizens who call when they see someone passed out in a public space to provide the dispatcher with as much information about the location and the person’s condition as possible so that AFR sends what he called “an appropriate response.”

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