Falls are common among the elderly. They can result in serious injuries that require hospitalization. Other times, the individual just needs helping getting off the floor and back into a chair or bed. When the latter happen in an assisted living center, Tacoma Fire Department often ends up doing that lifting. This not only costs taxpayers, it can take time from firefighters who could be responding to an emergency.
On Nov. 20, Tacoma City Council passed an ordinance to amend a section of the Municipal Code related to ambulances. It establishes a penalty charge for licensed care facilities that call upon Tacoma Fire Department, or any of its contractors, to lift a patient who has fallen.
Fire Chief James Duggan told the council his department is called upon to perform such lifts about 350 times per year. He said the problem is not generally associated with adult family homes, which are private homes in which the owners provide care for up to six non-related individuals. The problem is with nursing home-type facilities. As an example, he mentioned a call to such a facility for a male resident who needed a lift. The staff said the man has such a fall about three times a week. When he falls during the day, the staff on duty is capable of lifting him. Duggan said his firefighters end up doing this task in the evenings.
Several people testified against the ordinance, including some from health care organizations and state agencies. David Lord, director of public policy with Disability Rights Washington, said the law would have a chilling impact on people thinking of calling 911 for help when someone has fallen. He said a patient who falls could be injured when someone not capable of lifting them attempts to do so. Amy Freeman, an attorney in private practice who represents the Washington State Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, said the ordinance violates state law.
Council Lillian Hunter introduced an amendment that would exempt places not required by law to have nurses on duty. She said the intent of the law is not to penalize, but to change the behavior of operators of facilities. She also introduced an amendment to the penalty section. The proposed law had called for a fine of $850 for each offense. Her amendment changes this for the first year, with a $350 fine for the first call, $500 for the second and $850 for the third. The law goes into effect on Feb. 1, 2019. In 2020, the fine will be $850 for each offense, regardless of whether the facility was fined during 2019. Hunter said her intention was to ease the law into effect, with 2019 being a transition year. Hunter requested that staff present a progress report to the council after six months.