Non-emergency calls plague Owings Mills Volunteer Fire Company

The problem of non-emergency medical calls to the Owings Mills Volunteer Fire Company became apparent as soon as the first building opened in 2005 of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Village, an independent senior living complex in Owings Mills.

Other buildings in the complex opened in phases, the last in 2011.

Now, the problem has come to a breaking point and is threatening to overwhelm the volunteer fire fighters' ability to respond to other calls from the community.

Both fire company and Weinberg Village officials met for several months to resolve the problem. Vicki Almond, 2nd District County Councilwoman, also participated in discussions.

"I thought things had gotten better," Almond said.

And, for awhile, they had. But over the summer, the number of non-emergency calls "is creeping back up," said Marci Catlett, fire company vice president and public information officer, who has recorded 22 such calls from the village from Aug. 1 to 20.

"There is no pattern. Calls come at 4 a.m. and 5 p.m., including three separate calls within a two-hour period on a single day," Catlett said. "We're frustrated."

Cindy Zonies, director of service coordination at Weinberg Senior Living, is aware of the situation.

"We are committed to resolving this," says Zonies, who has met repeatedly with fire company officials as well as with residents to discuss non-emergency calls.

"These are seniors aging in place. We have to be careful not to be intimidating," she says. "We don't want them to be fearful to call if it's an emergency."

In 2012, Baltimore County government recognized the fire company as the busiest volunteer company in the county with 2,124 fire-response calls and 1,757 emergency medical calls. Twenty percent of fire-response calls were from Weinberg Village, and 75 percent of those were actually non-emergency medical calls.

"We didn't need to be there," said company fire Capt. Edmund Schwartz, Jr.

The result is plummeting morale at the company, he says, and an inefficient use of its resources. The circa 1921 company has 100 active responders and 300 non-active members, most of whom mainly raise funds. It moved into its current building on Owings Mills Boulevard in 1998, where it maintains firefighter and EMT/paramedic equipment.

Schwartz is particularly concerned that responders do not want to sleep over at the company given the number of "false" calls. In the county, fire companies, both volunteer and career, have three minutes to respond to a call before an adjacent company is notified.

"In Owings Mills, no neighborhoods are that close. You have to have people sleeping in the building" to respond within the time limit, he said.

The way Schwartz and Catlett see it, the issue at the village is twofold. One is the design of the "alarm" button, located in a unit's bathroom next to the light switch and worn around the neck as a pendant, making it easy to call accidentally. The second is a countywide system in which calls go directly to 911 emergency and then are routed to the fire company.

"There is no filter," said Schwartz, although he added that other senior facilities have found a way to finesse similar situations. He cites Atrium Village, in Owings Mills, where a security guard monitors non-emergency calls. As a result, the company gets maybe one such call every three or so months from the senior living facility.

Zonies says that steps are being taken to alleviate the problem. While hiring a security guard to monitor non-emergency calls is not affordable, she says that village management is talking to alarm system providers and looking at the emergency call technology to determine what can be done to avoid accidental calls.

Zonies is stepping up educational programs for residents, and backing up the fire company with a visit to each resident whose emergency or non-emergency call triggered a response.

"We've got a whole group working on it," Zonies said.

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