Tacoma firefighters aboard Engine 17 rolled out of the station on Jan. 15 en route to a 911 call of “a person in distress.” It was a Sunday, about 2:40 p.m.
Minutes later, they arrived at a home in the 800 block of Spring Street in Fircrest where the reporting party — identified as “a lady” in Fire Department records — was waiting to meet them.
Her emergency? She couldn’t get a door open.
That’s right, a woman called 911 because one of her house doors was stuck. And yes, a group of highly trained firefighters aboard a fire engine equipped with yards of hoses and hundreds of gallons of water was dispatched to help her.
Needlessly, as it turned out.
“When she tried the door to demonstrate to us that it was stuck, it opened,” firefighters wrote in a subsequent report.
It was just one example of more than 3,000 “investigate only” calls Tacoma firefighters responded to in 2012, according to department records.
Those are nonemergency situations where people need help, but not necessarily the kind that requires firefighters to activate the lights and sirens on their rigs.
They included calls from people who needed assistance getting into or out of their wheelchairs, folks who smelled something strange in their houses and couldn’t find the source, and a few calls from people who wanted firefighters to fetch cats from trees or rooftops.
More than 30 percent of the calls — 917 in all — came from people who locked themselves out of their cars or homes, according to Fire Department records.
In almost every instance, Tacoma Fire rolled a rig.
Chief Jim Duggan acknowledged during a recent interview that sending a fire engine carrying a crew of three and 500 gallons of water to help a woman with a stuck door isn’t ideal.
“In hindsight, that wasn’t the appropriate response,” Duggan said.
But people who either don’t know how to handle such situations or feel they have no other choice often call 911, he said, and firefighters feel obligated to help them.
“It’s an emergency to them,” Duggan said of the callers.
Still, the department has embarked on a number of initiatives recently to reduce such calls, including a program started last year to connect people who frequently call 911 for problems with what Duggan calls “daily tasks of living” with the social service providers who can assist them.
That’s a win-win, Duggan said, because the person gets the appropriate help for the situation and firefighters aren’t tied up with calls that aren’t really emergencies.
“Our folks are very good problem-solvers,” Duggan said of his more than 350 personnel. “But in many cases, it’s not an ideal use of our resources.”
A COSTLY BURDEN
The number of “investigate only” calls is just a fraction of the nearly 40,000 total calls the department responded to in 2012, including 1,436 fire calls and 31,367 emergency medical incidents.
Still, Duggan said, non-emergency calls take a toll on his department, including more wear and tear on its equipment and higher fuel costs. Fire Department officials estimate they could save at least $50,000 annually by reducing the calls.
Responding to such incidents also eats into time firefighters could spend training, studying their craft or performing other functions such as inspecting buildings, the chief said. Responding to such calls hasn’t slowed his department’s responses to real emergencies because his crews are equipped and ready to go even when they’re out assisting a citizen with something that might seem trivial, Duggan said.
Tacoma Fire is not the only department in the state or nation that struggles to balance a growing number of true emergency calls — fires and emergency medical calls, including car wrecks and trauma — with those often termed “community service” or “citizen assists.”
Departments from Everett to Spokane find themselves fielding calls from people who want firefighters to fix broken water pipes or knock on the door of an elderly neighbor who hasn’t been seen for a few days.
“Historically, the fire service has been the agency people turn to when they don’t know who else to call,” said Robert Lord, who runs the Fire Command and Administration program at Pierce College.
Responses vary by department.
Central Pierce Fire & Rescue, which serves Puyallup, Spanaway, Parkland and other areas of central Pierce County, asks its dispatchers to perform triage for non-emergency calls, Chief Keith Wright said.
For example, operators are expected to ask someone who calls about locking his or her keys in the car if there is a child trapped inside the vehicle. No kid, no response, Wright said.
Central Pierce will send a rig to a cat-in-a-tree call but might not be able to offer any help other than advice, he added.
“We’ll go, but we evaluate what we can do on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
The Everett Fire Department will send firefighters to almost every 911 call that comes in, Fire Marshal Rick Robinson said.
“We’re going to go, and we’re going to do what we can,” Robinson said.
With a few exceptions.
“We don’t do cats in trees,” he said. “But we also caution (callers) not to climb the tree.”
Spokane firefighters respond to a wide variety of non-emergency calls as well, including cats in trees, but in recent years have become more selective about what calls they’ll respond to, Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer said.
For instance, they’ve stopped unlocking car doors unless there’s a child inside, he said.
The Spokane department also entered into a partnership with the School of Social Work at Eastern Washington University recently, Schaeffer said.
Social work students intern with the department and work with firefighters to get the appropriate resources for people who use the 911 system for a myriad of problems.
The solution might be as simple as installing a bed rail for an elderly woman who frequently falls out of bed and cannot get back in, Schaeffer said.
Spokane Fire has seen a marked reduction in non-emergency calls since implementing the partnership, he said.
“You’ve got to look for other ways to do things,” Schaeffer said. “Otherwise, you continue throwing resources at problems you’re not equipped to deal with.”
The Tacoma Fire Department embarked on a similar effort last year by creating a program called FD Cares, said Tory Green, deputy chief of administration.
The department contracted with two nurses and an administrator to work with frequent 911 callers, including one person who called the emergency number more than 100 times in a single year, Green said.
Tacoma Fire hopes FD Cares will both reduce the number of calls to 911 for non-emergencies and connect people with resources that actually can solve their long-term needs, Green said.
As of this writing, the program had connected 90 frequent 911 callers to more appropriate community services, according to department records. Calls to 911 from those people have dropped off dramatically, Tacoma Fire spokesman Joe Meinecke said.
“For example, an elderly citizen that calls 911 an average of 15 times per month was reduced to an average of three calls per month after being contacted by FD Cares,” Meinecke said.
Other department initiatives include a partnership with the University of Washington Tacoma on a health education campaign, the creation of a “nurse line” where people can talk to a health care professional about medical concerns, and possibly starting a paramedic unit that would make occasional house calls to check up on people.
The paramedic program is dependent on the department securing grant money, Green said.
“We’re dealing with a lot of people who are using the wrong system,” he said. “That whole collaboration piece is the key.”
Tacoma City Council member Victoria Woodards is chairwoman of the Public Safety, Human Services and Education Committee.
Woodards said she supports the department’s efforts to find “creative ways” to reduce non-emergency calls to 911.
That’s especially true as municipal budgets shrink and governments are forced to do more with less, she said.
“Changing how they do business, I’m in support of that,” Woodards said. “I’d rather send a nurse than roll a rig.”
Tacoma Fire has taken a stricter stance in some areas, including saying “no” more often to people who call 911 because they’ve locked their keys in their car.
The department still will automatically respond to such calls if a child is locked inside, Duggan said, but dispatchers are exercising more discretion if no child is present.
They’ll still dispatch firefighters if, say, it’s late at night or during inclement weather when there is the possibility of a health or safety issue, he said.
Otherwise, dispatchers are advising people to call their spouse or a locksmith.
The hard line is paying off. In 2011, firefighters responded to 1,482 non-emergency lockouts. That number was down to 917 last year.
Tacoma Fire and other departments are destined to handle some number of non-emergency calls, no matter how many programs they implement or how much public education they try to do, experts said.
Firefighters are public servants, after all, and usually are people who have the desire to help others.
Some rural departments spend the majority of their time responding to such calls, said Lord, the instructor at Pierce College.
“Serving is what we do,” said Robinson of Everett Fire. “That’s part of the firefighting ethos.”
How many and what types of calls they choose to answer is a department-by-department decision, said David Congini, owner of Municipal Fire Consulting, a Pennsylvania-based company that advises fire departments on best practices.
Tacoma Fire dispatchers are trained to evaluate calls and send appropriate resources, Meinecke said. In many cases, dispatchers suggest a course of action other than sending a rig, he said.
“If the dispatcher determines that the caller has exhausted other avenues, the dispatcher has the discretion to send the fire crew to assess the situation as a public service, assuming sufficient resources are available,” he said.
Once on the scene, Meinecke said, firefighters have the discretion to say no to a request for service, based on “a risk/benefit analysis.”
Deputy Fire Chief Faith Mueller said Tacoma Fire always would respond to calls of natural gas odors or downed wires because those constitute health and safety issues.
“We want to know about those,” Mueller said.
Other calls are subject to debate.
“It’s more of a PR thing, whether it’s a cat in a tree or a flooded basement,” said Congini, a certified fire protection specialist. “You do have to use some common sense, though.”
And it might help if people used some common sense before dialing 911 in the first place.
Like the person who called on June 17, 2012, because a cat was on the roof of a house in the 500 block of South Sheridan Avenue in Tacoma.
“Cat on roof with easy access for cat to get off,” firefighters dispatched to the scene later wrote. “Instructed resident to put food out then leave so cat could come down.”