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How Henrico County is combating trend of 911 calls for non-critical emergencies

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- When a stroke call came into the Henrico 911 dispatch center on July 11, the ambulance that would normally be the first to respond was already out on another call which was not a life or death emergency.

That meant another ambulance had to be sent from further away.

"The amount of time that you're experiencing stroke symptoms is critical," Henrico Deputy Chief Alec Oughton said. "For every minute your brain doesn't have oxygen you’re losing brain tissue and that damage is becoming worse and worse."

It took the ambulance 13 minutes to reach the patient, and Oughton said the department wants to do better.

"So, when you pick up the phone and call 911, we want to have a unit between 6 and 6.5 minutes to your door taking care of your call, and we were finding that we weren't able to achieve that benchmark," Oughton said.

Oughton said the department receives roughly 50,000 calls for service annually, and for the vast majority of calls, the department does meet that standard.

For example, when Absia Bara's daughter Alicia fainted at work last year, Henrico responded instantly.

"I got the call from her co-workers, and it just scared me to death," Bara said. "I thought she was going, you know...anyway they were there."

"I gained a lot of respect for emergency services," Bara added.

Still, the Henrico Fire Department discovered that in 2017, on more than 400 occasions their advanced life support ambulances were responding to what are called low acuity calls for service, for example, a sore throat, or a person needing transportation to get medicine, when someone in the same district was experiencing a life or death emergency.

"This must have been incredibly frustrating to see this data and see what was happening in terms of not being able to get there sometimes in the time you wanted to get there in an acute situation?" CBS 6 reporter Melissa Hipolit asked Oughton.

"It was a moment of clarity and recognizing that we have a huge opportunity to do things differently and improve the service delivery," Oughton responded.

After doing hundreds of hours of research, Henrico found that over the past 10 years. the rate of growth for calls for ambulance service has been four times the rate of population growth.

In other words, people are now calling 911 for an ambulance more frequently for non-critical emergencies.

"The low acuity calls for service, things like a general illness, cold or flu sore throat, ear pain or tooth pain, was increasing at a rate faster than our acute care calls for service," Oughton said.

Oughton said that's a trend nationally, but, unlike in many localities, in Henrico County, residents receive ambulance service free of charge.

The fire department wanted to figure out how to provide quality service in the most cost-effective way possible.

"We would over-respond," Oughton said.

So, starting Wednesday, July 18, Henrico put two new ambulances into service that will focus solely on those non-life or death emergency calls.

"I expect these to be able to address between two and three-thousand calls a year," Oughton said.

And, in September, they will implement a new 911 system, where dispatchers will ask questions that will allow them to filter the proper response to calls.

Alec Oughton

They will also hire someone to help connect residents who have barriers to health care with community resources.

"Do you think these new changes will help save lives in the community?" Hipolit asked Oughton.

"I do," Oughton replied.  "Not only save lives, but it's going to keep the community happier and healthier and more functional."

They're changes Henrico hopes will leave every one of their residents who experiences a crisis feeling like Absia Bara.

"You know how you feel, like, when something happens to you, and you have that arm right there to hold you up, that's what they were like at that point," Bara said.

The fire department said the changes are costing the county a little under 1.5 million dollars.

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