The Omaha Fire Department says it happens 300 to 350 times a year. An assisted living or nursing facility calls 911 to help pick up a resident who has fallen out of a chair or bed.
There’s no medical emergency and the person isn’t injured, the resident just can’t get off the floor without help.
The calls — “almost one a day,” said Assistant Fire Chief Kathy Bossmann — can lead to longer response times for higher-priority calls and each one costs the department at least $1,000. So the department is asking the city to approve a $400 fee charged to facilities for these non-emergency calls.
The council is scheduled to take a final vote Tuesday on the proposal.
“The hope is by charging this fee, it will dissuade calls for service for non-emergency matters,” says a letter from Fire Chief Dan Olsen to the City Council.
The Fire Department based its proposal on a similar program in place in Lincoln since 2012. There, the Lincoln Fire Department charges $349 for such non-emergency “lift-assists.”
Julie Sebastian, CEO of New Cassel Retirement Center at 90th Street and Western Avenue, told council members at its Aug. 7 meeting that she’s not necessarily opposed to the idea. But she wanted to make sure council members understand why facilities call 911.
Assisted living facilities such as New Cassel are not required to have a nurse on staff 24 hours a day, she said. “Sometimes, when we call the Fire Department,” she said, “it’s because we aren’t sure that someone is safe to get up. If they try to get up from having fallen, they might further hurt themselves. We need medical professionals on-site to help determine that.”
In a later interview, New Cassel’s vice president of operations said that it’s unusual for their facility to call 911 just to help somebody up.
“If we were to call them, it would be a last resort,” Glenda Hallberg said. Hallberg and others also mentioned that sometimes larger individuals require more help than the staff can easily provide.
Sebastian told council members that she also worried that the fee could lead to unintentional discrimination against larger residents, if providers fear that they’ll face fees while getting those patients help.
“That could result in providers potentially declining admission,” Sebastian said, “because of the worry of a fall.”
Bossman said firefighters are “happy to still respond and provide lift-assist. We just want to recoup a portion of the cost.”
The fee, which would apply only if first responders determine that there are no medical problems involved, would go into effect 15 days after council approval, according to the ordinance.
If the number of calls doesn’t change dramatically, the fee could generate more than $100,000 a year. Bossman said she did not know what the city would do with any money brought in by the fee.
While adding a fee could make calls more expensive for assisted living and nursing facilities, another category of facilities could still make plenty of calls.
Independent living facilities, which aren’t licensed care facilities, also call 911.
Richard Anzalone, director of Sunridge Village near 132nd and Blondo Streets, said that his facility often calls 911 when a resident falls and can’t get up because the facility doesn’t have any staff with medical training.
“In our case, we don’t have a choice,” Anzalone said.
As the ordinance is written, it appears that facilities such as Sunridge will not be affected by any fee. But if it is included, Sunridge will continue to call 911, Anzalone said.