Tacoma Fire (WA) Working to Reduce Non-Emergency Calls

Last year, the Tacoma Fire Department (WA) responded to twice as many “investigate only” calls — such as cats on roofs and people locked out of their cars — as actual fires, reports The News Tribune.

These nonemergency situations are 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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