Program unites frequent 911 callers with Aurora Fire resources to relieve strained system


AURORA | Aurora firefighters are working to deter a select number of people from repeatedly calling 911 for non-emergency issues, a practice that regular clogs dispatch channels and siphons resources from others in need.

Aurora Fire Rescue Lt. Paramedic Shannon Hardi briefed city council members last week on the status of the city’s relatively nascent 911 high-utilizer program, which unites several city entities in an effort to steer people away from calling 911 on a daily or weekly basis and instead admit them to long-term treatment or care.

Started in 2018, Hardi and a small team from Aurora Fire are currently managing 78 patients who consistently call emergency phone lines for help, with hundreds of other referrals in the pipeline, according to city documents.

One such woman now receiving help was previously among the most prolific 911 callers in the city, phoning dispatchers for issues related to alcohol abuse an average of twice a month, Hardi said. Now enrolled in the program through the help of a court-ordered sobriety program, Hardi said the woman hasn’t called 911 since June.

“I worked with her when I was a front-line medic on an engine company, and I’ve worked with her since I started in this office, so I know her very well,” Hardi said of the woman, who is in her 40s. “ … At her peak, she generated one 911 a week for 13 months straight … Since her enrollment she has not generated any 911 calls.”

Another couple in the program, a husband and wife in their 70s, has also completely ceased calling 911 on a regular basis since Hardi began working with them eight months ago, he said. Staffers with Aurora Fire were able to get the man into rehab to address lingering health issues, and they found a handyman service to help the wife with household issues — a frequent reason for 911 calls in the past.

Part of the local fire department’s overall community health division, the high-utilizer program is intended to allay the city’s dispatch lines, which have seen higher call volumes related to fire-related issues almost every month this year when compared to each month of 2020, according to city data.

“Unfortunately, this high usage of the 911 system and subsequent high volume users result in lots of non-emergent calls, which causes a strain on our city resources, overwhelming firefighters, ambulances, area hospitals and our limited equipment we have,” Hardi said.

Nearly three quarters of all calls to Aurora Fire are now related to EMS, officials have said in recent years, which translated to some 33,000 EMS-related calls in 2020, according to the departments’s most recent annual report.

Through July, Aurora 911 dispatchers handled 32,484 calls that were related to issues typically handled by local firefighters, a 10% increase over the same time frame in 2020, data show. Total incoming calls to dispatchers, including those related to emergencies and non-emergencies handled by both fire and police, were up 14% in the first seven months of the year when compared to 2020, totaling 307,760 calls.

The increases come as the city’s dispatch team, slated to be staffed by 91 people, is currently down about 20 employees, Tina Buneta, director of Aurora911, told council members last month.

David Patterson, CEO of Falck Rocky Mountain, the city’s designated ambulance provider, said his crews have seen similar increases in call volumes and transports this year when compared to the onset of COVID-19 last spring, when call volumes were relatively flat but actual transports plummeted as fears over exposure at local hospitals mushroomed.

“With call volume, I would say that the spring of ’21 into the summer has been extremely busy,” he said. “It is starting to slow down a little bit, but in contrast to the spring and early summer of ’20 — a year later it was just remarkably busy.”

Annually, Patterson said Falck crews respond to about 40,000 calls in the city and physically transport a patient from roughly 70% of those responses.

Officials have expressed optimism that the city’s newly deployed mobile response team could help further assuage strain on the city’s first responders by sending mental health workers — not cops — to certain, citizen-initiated calls in the northwest pocket of the city four days a week.

Hardi said the new three-person crew plans to work with his team to identify possible patients to receive help from the 911 program.

Council members could consider bolstering the 911 high-utilizer program with an additional full-time staffer during upcoming budget discussions, city management confirmed.

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