UTC social work students Ciscily Crislip (stripes) and Sydney Williams (glasses) and April Wilson, interim director of field education for the Department of Social Work, are helping the Chattanooga Fire Department deal with what are known as “citizen-assist” phone calls.

The 911 call comes into the fire department and the adrenaline starts to flow. Where’s the fire? How bad is it? How many firefighters does it require?

But it’s not a fire call after all. Some elderly or disabled person needs help getting up from a fall or from a wheelchair into bed. They may be having trouble picking up the TV remote, even getting something to eat.

“If you haven’t eaten in two days, getting a bowl of soup is an emergency,” says Capt. Skyler Phillips, Emergency Management Services coordinator for the city fire department. “Our main goal is to help people.”

Receiving these calls—known as “citizen-assist” calls—is a problem stretching nationwide and, in some cases, slows firefighters responding to an actual fire or a life-and-death situation. Chattanooga already has had about 1,600 such calls since the beginning of the year, according to Phillips. In January, one disabled man made 90 calls, he says.

The Department of Social Work at UTC is stepping in to help. In a pilot project that started fall semester, students in the master’s of social work program have spent several hours a week in the city Fire Training Center on Amnicola Highway. They gather information on who is making the calls, what the person’s need usually is and how many times they call over a period of time. From there, they will visit the person and help direct them to social-service organizations or churches or other groups that can help and, in turn, reduce the number of times they call 911.

“Hopefully, that’s where the student would come in and say, ‘OK, this is an individual that’s in need of some kind of community, maybe we need to connect them to a pre-existing organization that has an adult-day program. Maybe there’s an organization that’s providing some kind of companion resource,’” says April Wilson, interim director of field education in the Department of Social Work and supervisor of the new program. “So instead of seeking out that support through the fire department, they now have an agency they can contact.”

Since the beginning of fall semester, UTC students Sydney Williams and Ciscily Crislip have been spending 16 hours a week working with the fire department on the citizen-assist calls. They say they’ve learned as much as the people who call the fire department for help.

“I’ve discovered a million resources that I didn’t even know existed in Chattanooga,” Williams says. “We thought we thought of everything, then we meet somebody else who has a need I never even thought about, so it’s ‘Oh, now we need to find another resource for this.’”

As part of the internship, they’ve been visiting some frequent callers in their homes once a week to assess their actual needs and try to find resources to help them, Crislip says. “Our main goal is identifying people who are frequent callers and are in need of something more than just someone coming and picking them up off the floor,” she says.

Cathy Scott, assistant professor and director of the bachelor’s in social work program, says the new program “is a natural fit for us.”

“Because social work assessment and evaluation and caring for the elderly is part of what we do,” she explains. “The message that I kept hearing in the meetings that I’ve been in is: Just reduce the common calls, but reduce them in a way that these individuals are still getting support.”


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