How Tucson Fire is reducing ambulance rides and saving money

TUCSON, Ariz. - A groundbreaking program at the Tucson Fire Department to help people and save money is showing significant progress in its second year.

The Tucson Fire Department receives hundreds of 911 calls each day. The department’s infrastructure of people and machines is designed to handle around 65,000 calls per year but Captain Brian Thompson says the actual number of calls is more than 92,000.

“So, we're being overrun, overburdened by the 911 system,” Thompson said.

Thompson says many of those calls come from the same people for the same things. He says people call for help with issues that stem from problems like food insecurity, chronic, but manageable, illness, or homelessness. He says each time a crew transports someone to the hospital in an ambulance it carries a price tag of roughly $1,200.

He says one person racked up a ambulance and hospital bills of more than $140,000 in a single year.

“We call them super-utilizers, sometimes a loyal customer,” Thompson said.

Out of that problem Chief Sharon McDonough and other department administrators developed a new program, Tucson Collaborative Community Care, or, TC3. It launched in early 2016.

McDonough recognized an increasing number of calls were for problems rooted in chronic problems often associated with an aging population.

How it works: If firefighters and paramedics arrive at the scene of a 911 call and determine if someone there would be a candidate they refer them to TC3.

The four-person crew of two firefighters, a social worker, and paramedic pays them a visit, talks about the person’s issues, examines their home, and then connects that caller with the correct social services. Thompson says they have even gone with patients to their doctor's office to discuss care.

“It’s a twofold mission: helping the individual and reducing the call load,” Thompson said.

Its working on an individual and large-scale level. A recent audit showed just ten people were responsible for 324 ambulance rides last year but dropped to just 24 after meeting with TC3.  

The results are also showing up at city hall. During a recent budget meeting, city staff told council members projected revenue for ambulance transport fees fell short of expectations – a result of fewer transports. Staff was quick to point out they are pleased with the program do not intend to change TC3 because of this.

“This is the wave of the future. if we're going to do things right we have to do this,” Thompson said.

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