IBM consultants to study increasing EMS calls at Memphis Fire

Memphis is one of 16 cities worldwide to receive an IBM Smarter Cities grant; the company will propose management solutions that address the Memphis Fire Department's growing number of medical calls

By Linda A. Moore
The Commercial Appeal

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — IBM will send a team of six consultants to work with a Memphis Fire Department emergency medical services team to find solutions to a problem that costs the city money — and could cost lives.

Memphis is one of 16 cities worldwide to receive an IBM Smarter Cities grant, it was announced Monday in Las Vegas. The IBM aid, which the company values at about $500,000, will address the growing number of nonemergency calls to the fire department for medical services and transportation to the hospital.

The intent is not to take away services from those in need, but to find other resources and outlets for those who turn to EMS when emergency assistance isn’t really needed, Mayor A C Wharton said at a Tuesday news conference.

He was accompanied by Steve Fittes, IBM senior location executive in Memphis; Phil Trenary, president and CEO of the Greater Memphis Chamber; Jeff Liebman, CEO of Methodist University Hospital; and city fire director Michael Putt.

MFD responded to about 120,000 emergency medical calls in 2014, but about 25,000 of those were not emergencies, officials said.

It’s a “you call, we haul mode” for the department, Wharton said, which takes time away from true emergency calls.

Possible solutions could include having a nurse check on frequent 911 callers or having a nurse be part of the dispatch function, he said.

It hasn’t been determined when the team will arrive, but their work should be completed in 2016.

The IBM team will work with EMS, the health care community and possible talk to those “frequent fliers,” to create a report with possible solutions, Fittes said.

“We’re going to spend three weeks, analyze the problem as best we can, come up with the recommendations to fix it. Then we’ve got to back off and let the city take over,” he said.

Ambulance calls are billed at about $800 each, Putt said.

“If it’s not an emergency call, if they have insurance, there’s a good chance they (the insurance company) won’t pay and if they don’t have insurance, they probably can’t pay,” he said. “They may need some type of help but the ambulance ride to the hospital may not be the type of help that they need.”

A 2014 efficiency study conducted by consultants with Public Financial Management found that 69 percent of the fire department’s calls in 2012 were for EMS/rescue — compared to 6 percent for fires.

In 2012-13, PFM said the EMS division operated at a $17.7 million loss — about half of its $36.4 million budget for expenses.

Still, Wharton said, people will not be refused transportation to a hospital.

“We don’t care what the situation is, if the person says I want to go to the hospital, they’re going,” he said.

Beyond the consulting work, the Smarter Cities grant is also the potential for future assistance, Fittes said.

Knoxville received a Smarter Cities grant in 2012 and teamwork from that grant led to a $7.1 million weatherization grant from the Tennessee Valley Authority, he said.

IBM has also made Memphis one of three cities worldwide to receive a Twitter grant that will help the city track complaints and collect other information from that social network.

That grant includes another consultant and is valued at about $50,000. Other recipients are Detroit and Melbourne, Australia.

Politics editor Kyle Veazey contributed to this story.


©2015 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)

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