Virginia Beach’s rise in lift assist calls prompts service charge ordinance proposal

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A Virginia Beach Fire Department engine door. (Justin Belichis)
A Virginia Beach Fire Department engine door. (Justin Belichis)

VIRGINIA BEACH — The amount of lift assist calls the fire department receives has increased by 80 percent over the past two years, and now the city could charge a service fee for the non-emergency service if it becomes excessive.

Interim Fire Chief David Hutcheson presented the ordinance proposal to city council at its meeting Tuesday.

“On this ordinance, we are certainly not trying to charge for service,” Hutcheson said. “But if we get up over a thousand calls, that [mainly come from] two residents, it becomes problematic.”

Lift assist requests come when people call 911 because they can’t get up on their own.

Hutcheson said the fire department has received calls for incidents like cardiac arrest and a fire, but the engine they needed to respond was busy with a lift assist call.

“We do everything we can to shave seconds, so we don’t really want to give up minutes on a call,” Hutcheson said. “We set the number … we agreed that six times in a year was plenty.”

Any additional lift assists after reaching the new potential threshold could result in a $150 service charge, Hutcheson said.

Hutcheson said assisted-living facilities also call 911 excessively for help to lift its residents.

“At first, we thought it was because they needed help,” Hutcheson said. “What it became was we were doing the lifting because they didn’t want to have a worker’s [compensation] claim or have one of their employees get hurt.”

Hutcheson said once someone calls for lift assistance about three times, firefighters would give callers a pamphlet that lists helpful resources.

“There are times when we go in and an elderly person is taking care of an even more elderly person,” Hutcheson said. “We have many success stories where we’ve gotten adult protective services involved and they made recommendations and they got help.”

Councilman Jim Wood suggested exploring community paramedicine, which could help people without access to health care.

“It’s a paramedic that knocks on the door, takes your vital signs, makes sure there’s food in the refrigerator and checks their smoke detectors,” Wood said. “It diverts them from calling 911.”

Councilman Robert Dyer said one of the frequent lift assist callers lives in his district and that social work intervention from health and human services could mitigate the situation.

“The bottom line is a lot of people can’t afford to go to nursing homes, and more and more people are staying home,” Dyer said. “This is going to be a continuing and growing problem.”

City council will vote on this ordinance at its formal session on Feb. 21.