Drinkers keep The City's ambulances busy 

More than 1,000 people who have overdosed on drugs or alcohol were transported by firefighters last year — a number that does not encompass The City’s spending on caring for the inebriated, many of whom are repeat offenders.

The Fire Department is one agency that cares for people passed out throughout The City, but the Police Department transports drunks who are still able to walk. Also, a nonprofit organization called Community Awareness and Treatment Services is contracted out by San Francisco.

In 2009, the Fire Department responded to 1,778 overdose calls in The City. That number, however, declined nearly 24 percent from 2008, when there were 2,337.

The decline follows a general trend of fewer calls for emergency transports by the Fire Department, which has been supplemented more by private ambulance companies in the past two years.

City officials say the idea of getting people into services has led to a decline. In 2003, a task force put together by then-Supervisor Gavin Newsom found that dedicating a sobriety center for chronic drunks could free up a significant amount of space for other patients in emergency rooms.

The report came out of frustration with chronic alcoholics who refuse services despite draining the system with numerous ambulance rides. Emergency medical employees are required to respond to indigents and “chronic public inebriates” even if it takes time away from other medical calls.

But the drop in transports by the Fire Department has not equated to a reduction of people arriving at the new San Francisco Sobering Center at 1107 Mission St., according to Marc Trotz, director of housing and urban health for the Department of Public Health.

“It’s not meant to only be a drunk tank,” Trotz said of the center. “But if they want to walk out the door and get drunk again, there’s nothing we can do to stop them. Our goal is to get a hook in them and get them into services.”

Many of the people taken to the center are repeat guests. While there may be an occasional tourist passed out drunk who’s transported to the center, the majority of patients return on a regular basis. In fiscal year 2008-09, there were 1,000 patients who visited the center 2,500 times, according to Deputy Director Tae-Wol Stanley.

For the Fire Department, the decline in transports has correlated with a general improvement in response times. Despite balancing budget cuts and geographical issues, even southern neighborhoods of The City, which have long lagged behind the denser-populated northern neighborhoods for ambulance response, are seeing improved rates.


Repeat visitors

Some people are making many return trips to a sobriety center in San Francisco.

Unique patients in fiscal year 2008-09: Approximately 1,000
Visits to center in fiscal year 2008-09: Approximately 2,500

Source: Department of Public Health


Overdose transports

The Fire Department responds to calls of drug and alcohol overdoses. It transports people to sobriety centers or a hospital.

   2008 2009 2010*
Total emergency medical calls 82,221 73,677 N/A
Transports to center 1,106 982 406
Overdose calls  2,337 1,788  585

* Through April

Source: SFFD


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Brent Begin

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