Central Pierce Fire & Rescue has been inundated with repeat 911 callers.

In 2014, 10 people called the emergency number a total of 192 times, department spokesperson Darrin Shaw said. By 2017, the number of persistent callers jumped to 95, and they were responsible for 884 calls.

“As our community ages, that number will continue to rise,” Shaw said.

A new program, CARES, or Community Assistance for Referral and Education Services, aims to curb the number of repeat 911 callers by addressing underlying problems and navigating patients to resources.

Chief Dan Olson said most of those callers don’t need firefighters, a big red truck or a ride to the emergency room. Instead, they need more long-term help.

“Our citizens were asking for resources we couldn’t provide,” Olson said. “They have problems, and they don’t know how to connect into agencies to solve their problems. People don’t even know what’s available, and they are calling 911.”

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Such calls pull firefighters away from time-sensitive calls, like life-threatening highway crashes or fires.

“We notice that our availability is diminishing, and it’s eroding our availability to address these other community needs,” Olson said.

CARES began in August with registered nurse Shelley Rhone.

It works like this: Fire crews who respond to 911 calls recommend that Rhone follow up with the caller if that person needs help outside of emergency response. Olson said the program will help free up firefighters while getting the proper assistance for people affected by mental-health, behavioral-health or addiction issues.

Rhone follows up with the caller, usually within 24 hours, to check in and discuss potential resources. Some homes don’t have heat or food, so Rhone helps connect people with agencies and nonprofits. She also will help them navigate the Medicaid system, enroll in health care or connect them with Aging and Disability Services.

“A lot of times they keep calling 911 because they don’t know where to turn,” she said. “Our goal is to get everyone the care they need and reach them where they are.”

Three elderly women who each lived alone were placed in retirement homes after Rhone reached out to them about their living situations. One man’s son walked into the station, saying his father needed help, but he didn’t know what to do, Rhone said. After she took the case, the father was admitted into the hospital and now is in hospice care.

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In the three months of CARES, Rhone has taken on 65 cases, 20 of which have been closed with permanent or semi-permanent solutions. Since Rhone’s arrival, Olson said, some of the department’s repeat callers have stopped entirely.

“This has become what is needed for our community, so we are adapting,” Olson said. “We’re thinking of it as a significant value for our response system as a whole.”

After the state Legislature allowed fire departments to create programs to support the community, departments like Central Pierce and Tacoma have launched CARES programs.

A levy voters passed earlier this year funded the program, along with a low-acuity response team, which will respond to non-urgent calls, like flulike symptoms, diabetic issues, checking blood pressure, falls and minor cuts.

Olson looks to expand the CARES program with a public-safety instructor and a falls-prevention specialist.