Los Angeles Fire Department Launches SOBER Unit

By Paul Gaita 01/09/18

The new program was designed to reduce unnecessary emergency room visits and reduce the strain placed on EMTs and the 911 system.

A Los Angeles fire truck

The Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) unveiled a long-gestating pilot program to lessen the strain on the 911 system and its associated emergency medical technicians (EMTs) by devoting a special unit that will transport publicly intoxicated individuals to a sober center.

The LAFD Sobriety Emergency Response (SOBER) Unit, which was officially launched on January 5 at a news conference attended by Mayor Eric Garcetti, among others, was created in an attempt to cut down repeated emergency calls for chronic alcohol and drug dependency issues that have increased the workload for the city's firefighting and EMT units, some of which are required to wait up to six hours for an individual to be admitted to an emergency room.

According to LAFD data, some 40 individuals, or "super users," are responsible for approximately 2,000 911 calls every year.

The Los Angeles Times noted that the SOBER Unit, which is based at Los Angeles Fire Station 4 on Temple Street, located in the city's Skid Row area, has transported approximately 100 people since its initial launch in November 2017. The majority of these individuals were homeless and publicly intoxicated in the downtown area, though the unit can also respond to calls in Hollywood and South Los Angeles. 

According to city officials, the SOBER Unit includes an ambulance crew comprised of an EMT, a nurse practitioner and a caseworker from the David L. Murphy Sobering Center on Skid Row. When fielding a 911 call, the unit members will perform a medical clearance exam to determine if the individual needs transportation to an emergency room. If the patient is cleared of any issues, he or she is brought to the Sobering Center, where they are monitored until sober and can then receive detox services and transitional housing.

The program's primary goal is to provide an alternative means of treating individuals with consistent issues regarding public inebriation while also reducing the considerable strain placed on the 911 and health system. Those suffering from chronic alcohol and drug dependency issues, including the "super users" identified in LAFD data, were traditionally taken by ambulance to a hospital emergency room, where they were administered, and according to the LAFD data, often refused testing.

In many cases, the individuals returned to the same hospital after being discharged, reducing not only the availability of EMTs and medical staff but also firefighters, who were unable to respond to other 911 calls for up to six hours while waiting for the individuals to be admitted. "That's six hours that an EMT isn't responding to other calls of other Angelenos," said Garcetti at the news conference. "The SOBER Unit will save time, it will save money, but most importantly, it will save lives."

According to LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas, the fire department receives more than 1,300 emergency calls a day, most of which require some form of medical service.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.