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Tuscaloosa Fire and Rescue and the University of Alabama’s School of Social Work are teaming up to combat non-emergency 911 calls.

The EMS Prevention Program is designed to assist residents needing extra community resources before they’re forced to call 911 with a simple problem that could be solved with a doctor’s visit. Fire and Rescue now has several students from UA’s social work program who visit residents with a paramedic. Those students help set up residents in need with resources such as rides to doctor’s visits or financial assistance with prescriptions.

EMS Prevention Coordinator Brett Garrett said emergency medical service providers are not social workers, and that’s part of the problem.

“In this role, we have to slow down and connect people with resources,” he said. “It takes time. The social workers, that’s their specialty. So we’re getting them out in the field, getting them experienced with patients, and they’re giving us first-hand knowledge on what we need to do to be able to take care of our citizens.”

A large part of that is resource allocation, Garrett said, but it’s also about keeping Tuscaloosa’s residents healthy.

“We’re educating the most people that we can about the proper use of 911 and not using the emergency room as their primary care physician,” he said. “We want people to take care of themselves so they don’t have to call 911.”

So what kind of calls are inappropriate for 911?

Garrett said dispatchers often get calls regarding general childcare issues, simple medical issues and other instances in which callers may be better off with a simple doctor’s visit. Other times, callers may have let a simple problem go on too long until it winds up being an emergency.

“The biggest thing is educating people on what they need to do to take care of themselves,” he said. “The best thing for us is getting them connected (to proper care) as quickly as possible, and then we move on to somebody else”

Right now, Garrett said the EMS Prevention Unit is taking on about 10 calls a day, but that number was much higher when the program first began.

Tuscaloosa Fire and Rescue EMS Chief Chris Holloway said the department isn’t looking to keep people from calling 911, but said often what callers really need is a regular doctor.

“We’re in the business of helping people, and that’s what we like doing,” he said. “When somebody needs help, their first inclination is to call 911. Now, we’ve taught people that when you need help, you call 911. What’s resulted from that is that people are using 911 as their primary care physician.”

He said Fire and Rescue’s EMS department noticed they were using a lot of resources on low-level emergencies — often they’d take a full-size rescue vehicle with multiple workers on calls — so they reallocated some resources and now use a smaller SUV with one paramedic to handle lower-level emergency calls.

“A lot of people don’t have a choice (but to call 911),” Holloway said. “They don’t have transportation, they don’t have the means to get to a doctor.”

The prevention unit offers a safer response to smaller emergencies, Holloway said, and keeps the larger vehicles in service for higher-level emergencies, such as fires or heart attack calls.

But the EMS Prevention unit also visits people’s homes ahead of emergencies, so they can prevent emergencies before they happen.

“We’re not trying to do away with 911, we’re just trying to use it more efficiently,” Holloway said.

While the EMS Prevention Unit is working to stave off non-emergency calls, Holloway said if you’re ever in doubt, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

“That’s what we’re here for,” he said. “We’re going to come. Every time.”

More about the program can be found here.

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