Engage: Social Work Students Offer Bridge of Help

Firefighters already know that they couldn’t save lives and make a difference in countless others without teamwork. Now that team includes students in Eastern Washington University’s School of Social Work program, who have become heroes themselves to some of the community’s most vulnerable.

Each year the Spokane Fire Department responds to hundreds of non-emergency calls made to 911 from people looking for some kind of help. It costs $400 an hour to send a truck out. Those numbers have increased over the years, especially from chronic callers – people who repeatedly dial 911– largely because they don’t know who or what other help is out there. That feeling of helplessness often extended to the firefighters themselves, whose duty is to respond to every call, only to find out upon arrival that sometimes the need falls outside of their training. The frustration began to shift into a community resolution in 2007 when an EWU social work student asked Lisa Parise, MSW and director of field education and training, if he could do his practicum at the fire department.

“My student wanted to work with the firefighters to help people through a traumatic experience. They already had therapists to do that, so what I heard the Fire Department saying was that they needed someone to do assessments and act as a liaison to services that could solve these issues instead of just put a temporary BandAid on it,” Parise said. “What he needed was social workers, who can listen to what they’re saying. Their whole job is to connect clients to community services.”

The timing of Parise’s outreach was impeccable for Spokane Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer, who had recently spent a lot of time on a case. He responded to a 911 call from an elderly couple living alone. The husband had fallen out of bed and couldn’t get up, nor could his wife help him. It was the fifth or sixth time that officers had been called there in just a few days. Schaeffer said that there was only one phone up on the wall with most of the numbers too small to read, except for 911. He also noticed that they had very little food in the refrigerator. He sat down with the couple for more than four hours to see how he could help.

“All they cared about was wanting to stay together,” he said. “More than anything else that they may have needed, they kept saying that they didn’t want to live apart.”

Schaeffer worked for days researching options and agencies that could help the couple.

“There were no smart phones then, so I kept searching the yellow pages for answers on how I could help them,” he said. “Needless to say, I became very frustrated.”

Already dealing with a recent downsize in his department, the call from Parise offered a solution to a need that had continued to grow throughout Schaeffer’s career.

“We train firefighters to do so many things, but social work has never been a discipline that has traditionally been part of any curriculum,” said Schaeffer. “Quite frankly, social work is a profession and a completely different discipline that the fire service has been lacking for years in our delivery model.”

After countless hours of research to set up an unprecedented program, the EWU School of Social Work and the Spokane Fire Department established the Community Assistance Response (CARES) Team to address the needs of the elderly and other vulnerable individuals and families who experience crises and turn to 911 for help. Because these callers lacked the information and support needed to survive beyond the crisis, a bridge to more appropriate services was needed. The student CARES Team works with callers, family members, friends, neighbors and community agencies to help clients find alternatives to calling 911.

THIS HAS BEEN AN EXCERPT FROM ENGAGE MAGAZINE, THE COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT MAGAZINE OF EASTERN WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY. TO CONTINUE READING HOW EWU’S SCHOOL OF SOCIAL WORK IS HELPING SPOKANE’S FIRE DEPARTMENTS IN A GROUNDBREAKING NEW PROGRAM, CLICK HERE.