ALAMEDA COUNTY (KPIX 5) — It’s possible you may need to call 911 for an ambulance at some point in your life, maybe even more than once. But 300 times, in just one year?
It’s the start of the night shift for ambulance-service providers Paramedics Plus. Already this ambulance crew is running a “Code 3.” That means using the ambulance’s lights and sirens, clearing a path down Interstate 880 and speeding through red lights as they respond to a report of a man who cannot move at the Warm Springs BART station in Fremont.
The crew already knows who the man is before they even arrive, just based on the type of call.
“Oh yeah, single male in his 60s. That’s him!” said paramedic Son Tran.
BART police told paramedics the man simply refused to move. He was sleeping on the BART platform and said he needed to go to a hospital when they tried to rouse him.
The patient is what paramedic crews commonly refer to as a “frequent flier.” In other words, people who call 911 on a regular basis, but often don’t need medical treatment. EMT Tonya Powell says she often spends entire shifts picking people up who aren’t having medical emergencies.
“If I work a 12 hour shift, I run four to eight calls. And I want to say 50 percent to 75 percent are frequent fliers or don’t need an ambulance,” said Powell.
During KPIX 5’s ride along, it didn’t take much time to get the picture. At the Whole Foods near Washington Hospital in Fremont, another frequent flier is waiting. Someone called 911 trying to get him kicked off the property. He tells EMT workers about his chronic seizures, that get worse when he abuses alcohol.
“I drink and I don’t take my seizure medication,” the man told the Paramedics Plus crew. When asked where he gets his medication by a crew member, he replies, “It’s expensive. I don’t.”
In the end, he turned down the ride, but only after tying up an ambulance with an EMT and a paramedic, a firetruck with three firefighters and a Fremont Police squad car with two officers.
The county sent KPIX 5 a list of the top 25 frequent fliers who call 911 on a regular basis. In two years, 25 people have collectively called 911 4,291 times.
If the average transport costs $600 dollars, that adds up to over $2.5 million dollars. The number one frequent flier makes up 300 of those calls. Their estimated tab alone is $180,000.
When KPIX 5 asked if her ambulance essentially ended up offering taxi service by the end of most nights, Powell replied, “We do, we do.”
But the cost and wasted time aren’t the biggest concern. Some nights, there are so many frequent flier calls the system hits what is known in the emergency response trade as “level zero.” That means someone who is having a real, life-threatening emergency like a heart attack would have to wait longer for an ambulance.
“This is — in the far wider sense of the situation — a public health crisis,” said Paramedics Plus COO Rob Lawrence.
Lawrence says solving the frequent flier problem is complicated. If someone calls 911, Lawrence’s company is liable and ambulances have no choice but to transport.
“We are the number one provider for the County of Alameda. We are here 24/7,” said Lawrence.
Back in Fremont, minutes after paramedics dropped him off at Washington hospital, our first frequent flier of the night was back out on the curb. Powell told KPIX 5 the man was upset about not getting a sandwich.
“They will become belligerent if they don’t get what they come to the hospital for, which is food. And in this case, the patient was upset because he didn’t get the sandwich that he wanted,” said Powell.
So hospital security called 911. This time, he walked into another ambulance himself and was transported to John George Psychiatric Pavilion in San Leandro.
“There you go. Once he is released from there, he is back out onto the street and we will probably run on him twice again tomorrow,” said Powell.
John George kicked him out later that night. He was then transported to St. Rose Hospital in Hayward.
And the problem with frequent fliers is not just an issue in Alameda County. The entire Bay Area is facing the same daunting challenges. It turns out some of these frequent fliers are visiting multiple emergency rooms a day. KPIX 5 explores that side of the story during the 6 p.m. news on Sunday night, October 28.