PSU students work with Portland firefighters to reduce emergency call volume
Author: By Katy Swordfisk, PSU Media & PR
Posted: April 1, 2019

In the next few years, overburdened Portland fire stations may shift focus from responding to each service call to setting up a direct line with parties better suited to handle a caller’s emergency. Connecting someone with a social worker or mental health professional instead of a firefighter could help reduce the Portland Fire and Rescue Bureau’s tremendous volume of service calls.

The concept is one among many being studied as part of the fire bureau’s Blueprint for Success project, which is tasked with understanding the root cause of increasing emergency call volume. More frequent non-emergent calls — such as a senior citizen needing lift assistance — decrease the ability for firefighters to handle emergencies they are best trained for. 

Portland State University students in the College of Urban and Public Affairs (CUPA) are identifying ways to reduce the fire bureau’s emergency call volume. They are working with the bureau to analyze emergency call data to better understand the types of calls made from each community in hopes of reducing them.

A deeper understanding of the types of calls — and what’s contributing to a 28 percent increase in call volume — will help the bureau determine how it can better respond to the reality of each community’s needs, said Megan Horst, assistant professor with CUPA’s Nohad A. Toulan School of Urban Studies & Planning.

While students help the bureau better understand its community’s service needs, they’re gaining real world experience as urban planners, Horst added.

The students were tasked with reviewing call data for each fire station and helping strategize methods to improve not only public health and community safety, but also racial equity and access to resources. Horst said people of color face a disproportionately higher risk of fire.

“Part of our role is just helping Portland Fire and Rescue to think about what kind of data they  want to help reduce calls volume and provide more equitable resources,” Horst said. “And how will they use that data to make decisions.” 

Students in the Planning Methods 1 and 2 classes are working on the project and will continue to do so over the next several years.

Horst said some the proposed changes as a result of individual firefighters and community input include more tailored and efficient responses to the different kinds of issues that fire bureau responds to, which range from building fires and automobile crashes to non-emergency health concerns and people experiencing homelessness.

But it’s possible Portland fire will need to think even bigger upstream, Horst said, to better meet the needs of each individual community.

“We know that social indicators such as poverty, lower education, mental health, isolation and marginalization contribute to increased risk for fire and emergency medical response,” said Robyn Burek, principal management analyst for Portland fire in a interview with Government Technology magazine. “We also know that we live in the 26th largest U.S. city, with a population of approximately 650,000, and therefore the demographics and types of emergency responses will vary widely across a city of our size.”

Horst said she appreciates Portland fire’s attempt to focus on root causes and act in a more proactive way. Thinking outside the box from a planning perspective is the first step toward lasting progress, she added.

Photo caption: Portland Fire Station 21