Chattanooga Fire Department Reshapes the Wheel Regarding Lift Assists

Collaborating with multiple agencies and using firefighters on light duty, the department hopes to get ahead of a problem of aging residents and people with disabilities relying on the fire department for ordinary tasks.

by Jim McKay / May 31, 2019

When someone calls the Chattanooga, Tenn., Fire Department, they’ll come. The problem is, people are calling for everything — to get them a glass of water, help them on and off the toilet, get them the remote control. One man called 85 times in a month.

After enduring that month and the man’s 85 such calls for what the department labels as “lift assists,” Capt. Skyler Phillips, the EMS coordinator for the department, thought it was time to figure out why it was happening and what could be done about it. He contacted several agencies, including the United Way, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga social work program and the Southeast Tennessee Area Agency on Aging and Disability. Oh, and he contacted the insurance case manager for the man who’d called 85 times.

None knew of the situation but vowed to help. Phillips now hopes Chattanooga can be an example for developing a mechanism for being proactive and taking care of the aging population and people with disabilities before they call 911 for basic assistance.

The fire department doesn’t have paramedics and isn’t a transporting agency, Phillips said. And the calls for a lift assist could lead to disaster if a real emergency call comes in when firefighters are helping someone get off the toilet.

“The biggest downside, other than the population is aging [and] disabilities are progressing,” Phillips said, “is that our guys are elsewhere when an actual emergency comes in. They’re on a lift assist and a fire comes into the fire station. Now we’ve got a delayed response because of something that we would like to try to take care of on the front end instead of the back end.”

So, Phillips is developing a program of sorts, not a typical paramedicine program because the department is not a transporting agency, but the first steps toward alleviating the lift assists and getting help for the people who need it prior to them having to call 911.

The man who called 85 times? Once his case manager found out about all the calling, she became proactive and began tending to his needs. The calls eventually stopped.

So now, with his “parallel paramedicine program” Phillips is trying to reach the aging population and people with disabilities who are beginning to have problems and get a head start on what their needs are and how to fulfill those needs before things get out of hand like before.

“Most of the paramedicine programs that you hear about are transporting agencies and we’re not,” Phillips said. “So we’re having to reshape the wheel, so to speak.”

Firefighters, when not 100 percent, need to be put on light duty. So, the plan is that when Chattanooga firefighters are on light duty, they will be visiting the aging populations and those with disabilities to find out how they can help. They will be equipped with forms being developed by University of Tennessee at Chattanooga students as part of the students’ internship.

The light-duty firefighters will be doing safety checks — looking for loose wires, faulty smoke detectors, making sure handrails are intact, and the like, and documenting all this on the forms. The interns will go through the forms and determine individual needs of those people and then connect the people with needs to the agencies that can help.

“We can be the liaison for people who don’t know the services exist with the services who don’t know the people exist,” Phillips said.

Last year, the department fielded 1,320 non-emergency calls for lift assists. In 2013, that number was 435. So far this year, the number of calls for lift assists is 1,400 as of last Friday.

“The fire department is the greatest reactive organization in the world,” Phillips said. “If we could just be more proactive, we could then try to eliminate that delay when an actual emergency comes in.”