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Albert Lea, Minn., Fire Rescue Addresses Chronic 911 Callers

Like many cities, Albert Lea, Minn., is suffering from a shortage of EMTs and has embarked on a pilot with the Mayo Clinic and a nonprofit to provide resources to help people who repeatedly call 911.

nurse holding the hand of a patient
Adobe Stock/C Davids/
With the familiar shortage of ambulances and EMTs in Albert Lea, Minn., and a fire rescue department of 17 that now gets nearly 3,000 calls per year, it’s time for an intervention.

Like some other cities across the country suffering from a shortage of EMTs and too many citizens calling 911 for chronic conditions, Albert Lea is embarking on a pilot with nonprofit partners that will take care of patients who call 911 when it’s not necessary, instead of the patients being transported to an emergency room where not much can be done for their conditions.

“The biggest thing it does for everybody is it gets the resources out to people who need them,” said Albert Lea Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Laskowske. “We hear all too often, ‘I didn’t even know that existed,’ so it’s trying to get those pieces to the people.”

Those resources could be simply a nurse helping a person with diabetes understand what foods to eat and what medicines to take and when. Or it could be that someone has fallen but doesn’t need to go to the emergency room. There are free services for physical therapy assessments for someone who has been injured that a representative of a nonprofit — one like Care Resource Connection, the nonprofit that the Albert Lea Fire Rescue is planning to partner with — would set them up with.

When a 911 call comes in to Albert Lea Fire Rescue personnel, they go out and care for and transport the person as needed. If the patient can be helped by the resources program, in this case Care Resource Connection and the Mayo Clinic, the contact is made with the patient for a follow up so they don’t continue to call emergency services.

“The goal of the program is we would go out and determine what needs the citizen has and then through Care Resource Connection, and Mayo, they would work together to determine the patient’s needs and get resources to them,” Laskowske said.

The program is in its initial stages. “We’re still working through the wrinkles on it trying to get things worked out with [Care Resource Connection], and then it’s going to be a pilot because we’ll be working with Mayo also,” Laskowske said.

“We want to thank the Albert Lea Fire Department for taking this proactive approach to help reduce unnecessary emergency calls and trips to the emergency room,” Rick Thiesse, senior specialist for media relations at the Mayo Clinic, said in an email, “ultimately improving access to critical care for those who need it most.”

Other jurisdictions have created similar programs to deal with the problem of being inundated with 911 calls from people who want to go to the ER but don’t really need to, or where they have no other recourse but to call 911.

A community paramedicine program in Dayton, Ohio, was created to cut down on the emergency room visits. When Premier Health and the Dayton Fire Department realized that 166 people had accounted for 5,000 visits to the ER in a 12-month period, they started the program. The program targets those habitual callers and provides them the tools they need to get along without having to call 911.

Another program in Guilford County, N.C., showed some ingenuity to help solve the problem, dividing up 911 calls into two teams of responders: one with an ambulance and paramedics, and another that travels in a truck or SUV for the patients that don’t need a higher level of care.


Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management magazine.