Lacey City Council members got a glimpse of the city’s emergency response future Thursday — one in which less serious medical calls to 911 wouldn’t be handled by firefighters, paramedics and private ambulance companies, but possibly by as few as two people.
That was the thrust of a presentation given by Lacey Fire District 3 Chief Steve Brooks, who outlined an emergency response model that has been studied by the district, and that it hopes to implement this year.
As Lacey and its urban growth area grow, emergency calls continue to rise for the district, Brooks said. In the past few years, call volumes have gone up 8 percent to 10 percent per year. Call volumes already are 9 percent higher than the first quarter of last year, he said.
Among the calls are those less serious medical calls, which the district now responds to with an engine, paramedics and a private ambulance company. Brooks said some people call 911 for their primary health care needs, instead of visiting a doctor.
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The fire district is looking to meet the increasing demand for its services in a more efficient and cost-effective way. Devoting fewer resources to less serious medical calls would allow the district to focus on real emergencies, including fighting fires or responding to heart attack calls.
The alternative — a model under way in Mesa, Arizona, Brooks said — is to pair a firefighter-paramedic with a nurse practitioner or physician assistant. They would respond to less serious medical calls, and either deliver the patient to an urgent care center, or offer care on the spot, with a referral to a doctor, he said.
The same model also could be applied to mental health needs by pairing the firefighter-paramedic with a behavioral health specialist, Brooks said. He said the Olympia Fire Department is interested in that model as well.
Both approaches show cost savings, Brooks said.
Costs per patient in Mesa are less than $400, compared with $3,000 for delivering a patient to an emergency room, or about $12,000 for a mental health patient requiring a longer stay in an emergency room.
“There is the potential for significant cost savings,” Brooks said.
Lacey Mayor Andy Ryder asked how the district plans to fund the program.
A specific dollar figure wasn’t shared, but Brooks said the district’s fire commission is committed to some level of investment to show the program has value. That could mean adding a nurse practitioner in lieu of adding another firefighter position.
Paying for the service after that might mean some form of cost recovery: billing for the service and getting private insurance companies involved — and they might be interested if the program is a success, he said.
The fire district hopes to roll out a version of the program in the third quarter of the year, Brooks said.