Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Plano Fire Department confronts bogus 911 calls
The department wants to implement a plan to deal with "frequent fliers."
Nearly 500 calls come into Plano 911 dispatchers each day. While the majority of the calls are legitimate, a number of the calls are made by people who don't actually need emergency help.
While the calls may seem harmless enough, Fire Chief Hugo Esparza said they are taking their toll on the budget of both his department and of local hospitals, which are seeing their costs for dealing with such patients increase.
"There is a cost associated with this, because every time the fire department rolls, there is a cost to us in terms of the liability of responding and the wear and tear on the equipment," he said during Tuesday's city council meeting. "Most importantly to me is that a lot of times if the help is not required, we are still taking fire trucks and ambulances out of service, which means for other citizens who actually need the system, our systems are delayed or not getting available at all."
Esparza admitted that abuse of the system is not really a problem in Plano, but he presented the council with a plan he said would proactively address the issue over the next three years, while not costing the city any money.
The Department of Health and Human Services has allocated $30 million in grant money to fund new, innovative ways of dealing with the 911 callers, which Esparza said the fire department has dubbed "frequent fliers." Esparza said with the council's blessing, his department wishes to apply for about $1 million in money to fund a proposal it is calling "community paramedics."
He said the department would take two or three of its most experienced paramedics and provide them the proper social training to deal with those that frequently call 911 for illegitimate reasons. He said through education, as well as ensuring the patients are taking their medication properly and getting any medical help they need, the department hopes to reduce the number of calls it receives. The grant money would be used to hire new firefighters to replace the community paramedics.
"If we can reduce the number of calls, that will then reduce our costs," Esparza said. "At the same time, the hospitals will also see a reduction in their costs because they have the same concerns that we do. They are taking up bed space and their staff time."
City Manager Bruce Glasscock, who came up with the idea, warned the council that while the program would be funded for three years, after that the council may have some tough decisions to make.
"You get into these grants that have three-year funding, particularly when it involves personnel, and then all of the sudden the grant expires and you have a very successful program that the agency hopes you pick it up," he said. "We hope the program is successful and someone else will pick it up."
Esparza and Glasscock said if the program is successful, there is the possibility that local hospitals could pick up the tab after three years. If that is not the case, the council would be forced to find money in the budget to fund the three additional positions, or risk having to reduce staff through attrition or as a last resort, a reduction in force.
Councilmen Lee Dunlap questioned whether the program was appropriate, but said if the city had a solid exit strategy in case the funding was not picked up, he would consider supporting it.
"The idea is that this is going to reduce the costs, yet we are talking about potentially increasing the costs. Therein, I wonder why we would be doing it," he said. "But if we are experimenting with something and we have an exit strategy, that is I guess OK, but I still am concerned about too much optimism placed on a program, that in some ways, [Esparza] mentioned we don't have a problem like other communities."
Esparza assured Dunlap an exit strategy would be in place and said he thinks the program would be a great benefit to the community and the local hospitals.
The deadline for applying for the grant is January 27.
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