Spokane resident Esther Nolan sobbed as she watched Spokane firefighters pull charred clothing, furniture and keepsakes from her storage unit during a recent fire.
But she didn’t have to grieve alone.
Lisa Miles, an Eastern Washington University student and Spokane Fire Department intern, was there to comfort the distraught grandmother and provide her with contact information for relief agencies and other emergency assistance. Miles’ intern partner, EWU student Daniel Bosch, comforted Nolan’s 1-year-old grandson, Tyrese.
“They were really good with me,” said Nolan, who appreciated the one-on-one help and attention at a time when everything seemed harried and confusing.
Bosch and Miles are the first two students working as unpaid interns with the Spokane Fire Department in a new partnership between the city and EWU. The students earn college credits toward their master’s degrees in social work.
“They (Bosch and Miles) are notified when there’s a working fire or when a medical call looks as though it may result in a death,” said Erv Williams, who coordinates the Fire Department’s Community Assistance Response Team.
The program is designed to “connect” residents and visitors who need referrals to appropriate social service agencies.
“Their job is to go and see how the family is handling the situation; they might point them to the right service – maybe it’s the Red Cross, maybe it is mental health services,” he said. “So their job is assessing the needs of the people while the firefighters are assessing what’s happening.”
The idea to pair social workers with firefighters was developed by Spokane Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer after he and other firefighters responded to a medical-aid call involving an elderly couple. The husband had fallen out of bed.
Four trained firefighters and a $500,000 firetruck were dispatched to the scene, Schaeffer recalled, but all the patient needed was help getting up.
“I stayed and talked to them,” Schaeffer said of the elderly couple. “They didn’t have a lot of food in their fridge. He needed a device to help lift him out of bed.
“But they weren’t being connected with the appropriate social services to help them with their issues, such as Meals on Wheels, and Medicare or Medicaid.”
With the new internship program, in a case like that, the firefighters and social workers would both show up, but the emergency workers would be able to leave while the students stayed to help steer the family to appropriate social services.
Most emergency medical calls received by the Fire Department aren’t critical. “We are the first call people make instead of a last resort,” Schaeffer said. “What they need are people with a social service background that can help put them in contact with the right services.”
Bosch and Miles came aboard last spring and spent their first few months on the job establishing policy and figuring out how the program would work. They started intensive fieldwork in December.
“The internship has been amazing,” Miles said.
The students will spend 24 hours a week over 12 months with the Fire Department, said Lisa Parise, director of field education and training at EWU’s School of Social Work. It earns the students 18 credits toward a master’s degree in social work.
“I think it’s very successful,” said Parise, who plans to send six to eight more students to work with the Fire Department this spring. “I’m very encouraged that we are able to help the folks in crisis at a car wreck or a fire. They are able to give the one-on-one support for the person who has the casualty. They can even just listen, if that’s what’s needed.”
When Bosch and Miles encountered Nolan last week, they discovered she needed more help than just recovering the belongings lost in a fire. Nolan’s 33-year-old daughter had died of cancer the week before, so Miles gave her the name of agencies that could help with grief counseling, too.
“It’s pointing people toward resources to get them the help they need,” Williams said.