LA Fire unit to pick up intoxicated homeless in Skid Row

A new rig operating out of L.A. Fire Department Station 4 will pick up intoxicated homeless people and deliver them to a safe place for detox.
A new rig operating out of L.A. Fire Department Station 4 will pick up intoxicated homeless people and deliver them to a safe place for detox.
Rina Palta, KPCC

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The Los Angeles Fire Department has launched a new "sober unit" to pick up heavily intoxicated homeless people from Los Angeles's streets.

The new rig, operated out of Fire Station 4 on Temple St. near Skid Row, will serve as a year-long pilot program to determine if the city could benefit from a network of sobering centers and pick-up teams for inebriated homeless people. The aim is to free up firefighters who spend too much time responding to calls about intoxicated individuals, and reduce the number of drug and alcohol-addicted homeless people in emergency rooms and jails. 

LAFD gets about 1,315 emergency calls each day, nearly 90 percent of them regarding a medical emergency. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said fighters who pick intoxicated people up for transport to an emergency room or jail can spend six hours waiting for the person to be admitted. Then, once they're hydrated, they're released again, he said. 

"The sober unit will save time, it will save money, but most importantly it will save lives," Garcetti said. "

The unit, which operates Tuesday though Friday, is staffed with an LAFD firefighter / paramedic, a nurse practitioner, and a caseworker from the David L. Murphy Sobering Center. In addition to responding to calls from the public and other firefighters, the unit drives around Downtown L.A. on the lookout for people who are heavily intoxicated, but do not require a trip to the emergency room.

One someone completes detox, which takes about six to 12 hours, they're referred to long term drug or alcohol services. 

In its first month of action, the unit has picked up 100 people, averaging about four each day. 

"We're finding it takes a lot longer in terms of average time per call," said LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas. 

The sobering center itself, located on Skid Row, has been open for a year and has seen about 2,700 clients, mostly referrals and walk-ins, so far. 

The fire department's sober unit should bring up that number significantly, though the city does not have immediate projections. 

Terrazas said should the metrics show positive impact, the project will expand.

"What we envision long term is an infrastructure of sobering centers throughout the city, paired with sober units to bring patients to those centers," Terraza said. 

Admission to a sobering center is voluntary, so part of the task of the unit is to entice people who could benefit from detox and substance abuse services into treatment. The unit will primarily serve the Skid Row area, but will venture into other areas of downtown if time permits.