Local leaders from public health, social service and emergency response sectors continued their quest Wednesday for solutions to a soaring number of area "non-emergency" 911 calls.
Since ambulances respond only to medical calls, firefighters are left to handle 911 calls from citizens who need help getting up or performing other basic tasks, and the need continues to grow as the population ages.
Work on the issue took place during the Regional Health Council's Senior Health and Aging Committee meeting.
In the coming academic year, the Chattanooga Fire Department will house a master of social work intern from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to perform case management and better train firefighters in their evolving role. The move is a result of representatives from the fire department working with the health council and its multidisciplinary aging committee, which welcomes other community members interested in helping to connect needy callers to appropriate services.
Last year, the fire department received 1,320 non-emergency "citizen assist" calls, a more than 300% increase from 435 calls in 2013, according to department data. Citizen assist calls could include help bathing, reaching a remote control or lift assists for those who have fallen and aren't injured.
Each call costs the department $224 and potentially delays response time in the case of a fire.
Capt. Skyler Phillips, EMS coordinator at the Chattanooga Fire Department, said the work is just beginning, but they've already helped several residents find better alternatives to calling 911, including one who in the past had called for help 85 times in one month.
The intern will continue this work and develop an assessment tool, such as a form or checklist, so firefighters in the field can collect adequate information to relay back to social service providers, officials said.
"Our organizations aren't structured to meet the demands of this new and uprising call that we continue to get, and everyone in the country is having this same issue," Phillips said, adding that other departments are reaching out as word of Hamilton County's efforts spread.
"We're basically building it from the ground up, and that's what people are interested in. There are a lot of people just like the Chattanooga Fire Department that do not transport but need to know how to better serve these people," he said.
The group also watched a HoverJack demo from the Southeast Regional Healthcare Coalition, which coordinates health care resources and emergency response throughout the region. The product, which costs around $6,000, is one of two in the Chattanooga area that inflates to lift obese people to the height of a transport gurney. It was obtained through pre-approved government purchasing contracts to evacuate surrounding health care facilities and train for emergencies.
While the presentation wasn't an endorsement of the particular manufacturer, the device is something local fire departments are considering to help with transporting obsese patients, since it lifts up to 1,200 pounds to bed height, and normal stretchers support only 700 pounds.
It's one piece of the puzzle that Chattanooga Fire Training Chief William Andrews said could help firefighters reduce their risk of injury when moving patients.
"When we move patients, it's just sheer strength, and a lot of times we do have back injuries," Andrews said.
The senior health and aging committee's next meeting will be July 17 at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department.
Contact Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6673.