The D.C. fire department will begin a program today to visit the city's most frequent 911 callers in an effort to reduce unnecessary calls.
The department estimates that 49,000 of the calls it receives each year are for non-emergency situations.
"These are the people who are using the system about every other day," said Dr. Michael D. Williams, the department's chief medical officer. "If we can get one of those folks out of the system, that cuts a couple hundred transports a year."
Under the "Street Calls" program, paramedics will periodically check on residents who routinely call 911 for chronic but non-emergency health problems such as diabetes or mental illness.
The paramedics will start with the 20 most frequent callers, who account for 10 percent of the city's 127,000 annual calls, said City Administrator Dan Tangherlini.
"It's an idea that's gaining currency throughout the country," said Mr. Tangherlini, whose brother oversees a similar program in San Francisco. "The fact is [the program] saved the city several millions of dollars by [recognizing] people making these frequent calls were eating up these huge amounts of resources."
Dr. Williams said some 911 calls relate to concerns about a homeless person or are from lonely people making a desperate bid for attention. He said one man called paramedics to remove a boil from his arm, a procedure they were neither trained nor allowed to perform.
Paramedics will make routine visits to assess the well-being of repeat 911 callers and homeless people. The medics will link these callers to services instead of taking them to hospitals, where they are likely to be discharged immediately.
"My driving factor on this is to make sure to bring the full assessment that they might need," Dr. Williams said. "Because if you take someone who has diabetes who hasn't had their insulin in four days to St. Elizabeths, they're going to get shipped right to a full-service hospital."
The department plans to expand the program to reach the top 100 callers, then to those on the street who are in distress or in need of social services.
The program received $144,701 this year in supplemental funding, and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a Democrat, has proposed $298,364 for the program in next year's budget, a spokeswoman said.
Dr. Williams said the program will be run by the fire department rather than the Department of Health or another larger agency because paramedics have a unique ability to make comprehensive health assessments. He said the department also has the infrastructure to dispatch medics.
D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, who has oversight of the department as chairman of the council's public safety committee, supports the program.
"There's a fair amount of overuses of 911," said Mr. Mendelson, at-large Democrat. "This makes a lot of sense."
The program is part of a $3.6 million initiative to improve emergency services, as recommended by a task force on emergency medical services.
The task force, which included Mr. Tangherlini and Dr. Williams, was assembled as part of a settlement the city made with the family of slain New York Times journalist David Rosenbaum.
The family sued the city and Howard University for improper care after Mr. Rosenbaum was beaten and robbed near his Northwest home in 2006.
Republished with permission of The Washington Times.