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Editorial: New ABQ response to ‘down and out’ calls has promise

A pilot program in which Albuquerque security officers, not firefighters, respond to “down-and-out” calls has the potential to make the city’s public safety system more efficient and cost effective. It’s important the city monitor results, and if warranted, expand the program.

Albuquerque Fire Rescue responds to about 17,000 calls a year of someone in public view who appears to be unconscious, typically sending a fully-staffed fire engine – lieutenant, driver and two firefighters – at $94 per half hour, with an ambulance also likely coming.

The problem is a full-fledged first-responder response is usually unnecessary, tying up critical resources that could be headed to structure fires and cardiac arrests.

City officials say fewer than 1% of the down-and-out calls require medical intervention, and most of the time the fire truck is canceled or the crew arrives and the person can’t be found or refuses treatment. Those “ghost calls” cost city taxpayers $1 million from August 2018 through July 2019.

Worse, concerned citizens making reports in the past have been asked by authorities to approach the unconscious person to check on them. That’s not only impractical, it’s dangerous. First responders often ask the public to be their eyes and ears, but asking them to perform triage is irresponsible.

The pilot program, which has no costs to the city because it uses existing staff and equipment, is showing promise.

In December, officers of the city’s Security Services Division – who have training in first aid, CPR and communicating with those with behavioral health issues – began taking calls for wellness checks Tuesdays through Saturdays along some city bus routes. In the first six weeks, the security officers responded to 76 calls that would otherwise have gone to AFR. In over half of those, the security officers could not locate anyone or the potential patient walked away. In about a third, the responding officer ultimately called AFR.

This program should be re-evaluated after three months, and if results bear out it should be expanded. With a 15% increase in the city’s homeless population last year, Albuquerque has thousands of people living on the streets, and every call for a wellness check deserves a response that safeguards the person’s health as well as taxpayer resources.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.