On Friday morning as the Spokane Fire Department’s Engine 2 pulled up to an apartment, the two-story building looked familiar to most of the firefighters.
The four firefighters had visited the apartment, where a 51-year-old disabled woman lives, nearly three weeks earlier. Last year, emergency responders from the same engine company had been in the woman’s home in northeast Spokane more than 18 times after calls to 911 for non-life-threatening emergencies.
Of the 10 calls for service that Engine 2 may run each day, eight of them are for repeat or recurring calls for medical services, usually by people who either lack medical insurance coverage or have minimal coverage and slip through the system. Instead of visiting a doctor for noncritical concerns, the patients call 911, and the fire department responds.
“Everybody has the same problem: People are losing their health care in droves and they use us as their medical provider,” said Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer.
To combat the problem, the department created the Community Assistance Response Team, or CARES Team, a group of grant-funded social work students from Eastern Washington University who help “regular customers” of the fire department access social services and basic needs.
Since the partnership began in 2008, the department has seen a 77 percent decrease in recurring medical calls, statistics showed this month, Schaeffer said.
“This allows us to come out and try to fill the gaps for care,” said Jen Bravo, a social work intern and student who is part of the CARES Team. Bravo and student Meghan Martin drove around Spokane on Friday following up on several referrals from firefighters in the field.
“Most of the cases are repeated calls firefighters see, and we can better address their needs than the firefighters can on one shift,” Martin said. “They pick them up off the floor and then have to leave. We can start looking for resources.”
Engine 2 called the CARES Team on Friday after a home health care worker who checks in on the woman three days a week called the fire department when the woman didn’t answer the door. The fire department responded and started taking out ladders to access windows on the second story. As they prepared to break in her door, the woman was seen through a window, unharmed.
The woman, whose name was not provided because of privacy issues, talked with the two social workers about the need for more in-home visits. She is on state assistance and gets about 150 hours a month in home visitation.
“We want to keep you safe in the home,” Bravo explained, as the woman stated she was “picky about who she lets inside.”
The social workers respond to about five or six similar new referrals a day, usually to serve the elderly or infirm.
Another woman, who had fallen down and needed firefighter assistance last Saturday, was referred to the team. They went to the house three times over the week before someone finally answered Friday. Louise Eastman, a home health aide from Addus Health Care, answered the door and told the team that the woman had broken her back. They brainstormed ideas to keep the woman from falling and needing costly emergency services.
“An emergency room is built truly for life-and-death situations,” Schaeffer said. “The community has a different mindset about emergency care, and emergency rooms are overloaded. It’s much cheaper to keep her in