Council committee quizzes Baltimore Fire Department on response times, 911 calls

A City Council committee asked Tuesday for information from the Baltimore Fire Department so it could investigate response times, 911 call volumes, and risks facing emergency medical responders.

Department officials are expected to provide more information in the coming weeks.

Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the council's public safety committee, said he wanted to get a broad overview to gauge the agency's performance, vacancies and use of resources.

He said he was pleased with some efforts underway to halt the practice by some residents who call 911 claiming medical emergencies, only to use ambulances as transportation to doctors' appointments.

It's important for residents to know that the deparment is being innovative in addressing problems, Scott said. "It's also important for us to drill down to understand how we can improve the response times, but also how can we give them the resources necessary, how can we train up enough people inside of dispatch, train up enough EMTs, and grow them locally."

Chief Niles Ford, who attended the hearing with a team of top deputies, said the department is initiating training for paramedics and emergency medical technicians to de-escalate any threats they may face on the scene.

Last month, a union official warned city leaders that emergency medical responders were being attacked more frequently than in the past and said they need to be equipped with protective vests.

The union estimated such vests would cost about $100,000. City officials have not given any indication that they would be willing to come up with the money.

Councilman Zeke Cohen asked how the Fire Department works with mental health professionals and what intervention is available.

"How do you engage and intervene and how is that process monitored?" Cohen asked, adding that he hoped the agency would look for opportunities to use social workers, the Health Department and others to improve such responses.

Ford said emergency responders are trained not to put themselves in harm's way, deferring to police. He also said fire officials work with the city's Health Department and community groups to find ways to deal with people suffering from mental health problems.

Council members also requested data on staffing, demands on medic units and the agency's two-tier dispatch system used to deploy basic and advanced life-support units.

City lawyers recently denied two requests for documents The Baltimore Sun made under the Maryland Public Information Act. The Sun asked for information on the department's staffing, how often dispatchers send crews to the wrong address, and how long it takes paramedics and firefighters to respond to emergencies.

Benjamin A. Bor, a special assistant solicitor in the city's Law Department, told The Sun the city denied the request because the Fire Department did not have the documents to provide.

Officials said the department's 911 center is undergoing a nearly $5 million upgrade to help improve its ability to handle the more than 1 million calls that come in each year.

Ford said calls have been increasing by about 10 percent a year, and he outlined several steps to ease demands on medic and fire units. One would place nurse practitioners at the call center to help assess emergencies. Another would involve partnerships with third parties such as hospitals to address nonemergency medical problems and provide transportation to medical appointments, as well as offer home-based care.

"If call volumes continue to increase 10 to 12 percent every year, we can't keep up with it," Ford said. "We continuously add ambulances every year. ... There's a whole lot of things I think we can do. We're trying to figure out how to better use the resources we have."

ywenger@baltsun.com

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