As Oklahoma’s budget crisis threatens funding for critical medical, mental health and social services programs, first responders are feeling the pressure. When core services are cut, Tulsa’s most vulnerable residents have only one option – calling 911.
In 2017, the Tulsa Fire Department responded to calls from a single residence 21 times in one month. Such “high-utilizers” may need help getting out of bed, getting to a medical appointment, picking up medications or buying food. Some high-utilizers have chronic medical problems such as diabetes, heart conditions, alcohol and prescription drug overuse or long-term mental health issues. Some people call simply because they are lonely. Vulnerable Tulsans lean on the fire department when they can’t access other forms of assistance.
Law students from The University of Tulsa College of Law’s Lobeck Taylor Community Advocacy Clinic have been working with the Tulsa Fire Department and studying the high-utilizer problem. The students—Morgan Vaughn, Billy Boyd, and Valerie Hays—have found that the high-utilizer crisis is a serious problem not just for the fire department but for the entire Tulsa community. Nonemergency calls drain resources from the fire department’s core emergency services mission.
The fire department is not a long-term healthcare provider, but people call 911 when they have nowhere else to turn. And when people must use emergency care for nonemergency needs, their underlying health problems will not be resolved. They will continue to call on first responders for help. Because of possible state budget cuts, some medical and mental healthcare providers may have to shut their doors. This will increase demands on first responders and could cause an increase in crime, suicides and drug abuse.
The fire department is tackling the high-utilizer problem through the Community Assistance, Referrals & Education Services (CARES) program that is managed by Emergency Medical Services Chief Michael Baker. “We connect people to the social and medical services they need,” Baker explained.
Through partnerships with Tulsa-area agencies like the Mental Health Association, Family & Children’s Services and St. John’s Hospital, the fire department is bridging the gap between high-utilizers and service providers. The fire department is taking a proactive approach because, if these treatable or preventable situations are not taken care of early, they may become emergencies.
With proper funding, providers could do more outreach to connect people to services. Firefighters wouldn’t have to play the role of social workers and could focus on real emergencies. And people would get the help they need rather than relying on emergency care.