More and more fire departments are promoting healthy and safe communities by working to prevent emergencies before they happen. The Delhi Township Fire Department takes this community risk reduction model a step further with the Delhi CARES program.
CARES stands for Community Assistance, Resources, and Education Services. To find out what the program is all about, we recently spoke with Bobbi Honnert (social worker), Brian Sunderhaus (firefighter/paramedic), and Doug Campbell (fire chief).
“How can I help?”
A couple of weeks after lifelong Delhi resident Bobbi Honnert retired from a career in social work, a story on Colerain Township’s Opioid Quick Response Team caught her attention.
“I was in the car and I heard the assistant fire chief from Colerain on the radio,” Bobbi explained. “He said, ‘we have police, a paramedic, and a social worker to go help people out right away.’ I said, ‘I can do that.’ And I thought why go to Colerain if I can do it in my own community?”
So Bobbi called Delhi Fire Chief Doug Campbell and told him, “I’m retired but I’m not tired, how can I help?”
Bobbi’s offer came at the right time. Delhi wasn’t hit as hard by the opiate epidemic, but the department was working on other types of community risk reduction. Firefighter/paramedic Brian Sunderhaus had been operating as a kind of a one-person quick response team to help the community’s most vulnerable residents.
“This just isn’t good enough”
Brian has been a firefighter/paramedic for 15 years, serving in Delhi for the past nine. Two 911 calls in 2017 led him to create a program that grew into Delhi CARES.
One call was from a man suffering from heroin addiction who had hit bottom. “We showed up and he’s in tears and begging me to help,” Brian explained. The man had relapsed and had no place to live. Brian ended up taking him to the hospital, but kept thinking that “surely there was something else we could do.”
“The other, more tragic incident was an older man who was being taken advantage of by family financially and … being physically neglected in his home,” Brian said. “He fought us tooth and nail. He would not let us take him to hospital to help him out. He was of sound mind but just not making good decisions for himself. After about an hour or so, we were literally thrown out of his home. About two weeks later he killed himself.”
“Those two instances happened very close together,” Brian said. “And I thought … this is not good enough. When you call 911 and I leave, nothing should be worse.”
Coming up with CARES
Brian took his concerns up the ladder until he got to the fire chief, who agreed.
“We want to stop the incident from happening,” Chief Doug Campbell said. “By the time a person calls 911, it’s too late. We haven’t affected change.”
Chief Campbell told Brian to come up with a plan. So he got to work, putting together a list of who to call for things like addiction, bedbugs, hoarding, lack of food, needy veterans, abuse, neglect, falls, and more.
Brian said, “I had this big list of bullet points on how I was going to save the world … all these little things we see day in and day out, where you say, ‘oh my gosh, somebody should do something about that,’ but we walk away because it’s not our job.”
Without a model to follow, there was a lot of trial and error. “It seemed like as soon as I would get the program formed up and get a handle on it, we’d have to revamp the whole system again,” Brian said. “Lucky for me, right as things started going crazy and I really started getting in over my head, Bobbi called.”
Focus on falls
At least 20 percent of Delhi’s emergency calls are related to falls by people age 65 and older. On some days, the department gets more than one call for help from the same person. Bobbi’s background as a hospice social worker makes her a perfect fit for serving this elderly population.
“A lot of the elderly are too proud to use a cane or to use a walker,” Bobbi said. “They think they can get around and do everything without using them. That’s when falls happen … and they have to call the fire department to come and help them.”
Bobbi follows up with every case. Last year, she made 276 phone calls, usually within 24-48 hours of the fall. “It gives us the opportunity … to let them know that we care about what goes on with them, that we are concerned about them. I offer to come to their home to do a safety check.”
Sometimes the solution is as simple as connecting residents to the Council on Aging. Bobbi says many older folks don’t know that they can get free services like Meals on Wheels, personal care, and homemaking.
Some cases are more complicated
Bobbi tells of one of her first cases that involved an elderly couple living in unthinkable conditions. At first it looked like the issues were bedbugs, mice, and hoarding. “We got in touch with a company that specializes in hoarding, and we got some volunteers from the church they go to along with some firemen and … we all went in and cleaned out the house.”
Bobbi went on, “Then we realized they haven’t had heat for five years. People Working Cooperatively came in and fixed the furnace … the St. Vincent de Paul Society from the church they went to provided bedding and got them another couch … Once we got started on it, there were so many things that needed to be done.”
Delhi CARES changed the couple’s life. “I still keep in touch with them,” Bobbi said. “If there is something we can do for them we do it.”
Making an impact
CARES has become more streamlined. For every emergency call, first responders complete an electronic patient care report. They check a box if the CARES team’s help is needed, and the information goes right to Brian.
“We’ve been doing it long enough that we’re really making a huge impact in the sense that the community knows we care,” Chief Campbell said. “They’re getting a phone call … as a follow up to anything and everything that our medics and our fire and police officers are seeing.”
CARES has changed the culture of the fire department.
“It’s a really good feeling when you actually get to help somebody out,” Brian said. “Because that’s what we all signed up for when we took this job in the first place.”
Delhi CARES — the Details
Since 2017, the CARES program has provided 169 acts of service to Delhi residents in need. The most frequent assistance given is emotional support.
Community partners include:
- Council on Aging
- Delhi area churches
- Delhi Skirt Game
- People Working Cooperatively
- St. Vincent de Paul Society
Services provided include:
- Emotional support
- Baby items
- Grab bars
- Home repairs
- Dental referrals
- Addiction recovery referrals
- Transportation to medical appointments
- Help with household chores
- And more …