It’s the start of the night-shift for the medics of Paramedics Plus. Already this rescue team is running “Code 3" - lights and sirens, clearing a path down the freeway and weaving through intersections. They are en route to, "a man down" at a train station in the East Bay.
The medics already know who the man is before they even arrive.
“Single male in his 60s, sleeping on the BART platform. We know him well."
This particular street fellow is what paramedics call "a frequent flier” - those who abuse the system by routinely calling 911, with no emergency at all. Medic Tonya Powell reports she often spends entire shifts transporting people for no medical reason.
“In a 12-hour shift we run about 8 calls. About half of them don’t need an ambulance at all,”
During a KPIX news reporter ride-along, it didn’t take much time to see why. At a grocery store near Washington Hospital in Fremont, another frequent flier stands waiting. Someone called 911 to get him off the property. He tells the medics he has chronic seizures and they get worse when he drinks.
“I drink and I don’t take my seizure medication,” the man says simply. But he is having no seizure now. He eventually agrees that he does not need paramedic treatment, but the call itself ties up an ambulance team, a fire crew and 2 Fremont Police officers - all of whom could be better used elsewhere on true emergencies.
This summer Alameda County EMS officials allowed news reporters to see the names of the worst 911 call abusers. In the most recent 24-month period, 25 people have collectively called 911 4,300 times. You might want to go back and read that number again.
And because the typical Bay Area paramedic transport charge is $600 dollars, those 4,300 non-paying responses cost the system $2,500,000.
As one medic said simply, "we're often nothing more than medical taxi drivers."
The cost and wasted time are not the only concern. On many nights there are so many abusers the system hits a gridlock known as “level zero.” The end result is those having a real emergency will not get a quick response. They could wait for an hour.
“This is a public health crisis,” said Paramedics Plus chief operating officer Rob Lawrence.
Meanwhile, less than an hour after the Fremont paramedics delivered their first frequent flyer to Washington ER, the man was back out on the street, belligerent that the nurses didn't give him the sandwich that he wanted. He was transported to John George Psychiatric Pavilion in San Leandro.
“Once he's released from there, he'll be back out onto the street and we'll probably see him twice again tomorrow,” the medic said with a sigh.
The ugly reality is that EMS system abuse is not confined to Alameda County. With only a few small pockets of exceptions, the entire state of California is facing the same daunting challenges. Thousands of these "frequent fliers" are seen by multiple paramedic teams - and two or three ERs - every single day.
Which is at least one solid reason why the typical Paramedic quits the job within 5 years.
And if that isn't ugly enough, think about this sobering reality. Do you have any idea how many California hospitals and emergency rooms have closed their doors over the last 30 years?
But here's an idea: let's all keep pretending the state of California lifeboat can continue to absorb millions and millions of folks, who will never be capable of competently managing their own lives.
So the message from the vapid 'leadership' of California remains loud and clear: keep your wallets open and your mouths shut.
Or . . . or, you just might opt to do what thousands of middle-class Californians are doing each year:
(We are indebted to the investigative reporters of KPIX5 in the Oakland Bay Area for their terrific work on the streets)