If you ask Anchorage Fire Department Chief John Fullenwider, something more needs to be done about the town’s public intoxication problem.
He has a suggestion.
“One of my battalion chiefs has come up with, I think, a pretty unique idea, and it parallels what the courts are doing now with repeat DUI/DWI offenders,” the fire chief told local lawmakers July 17 at City Hall.
Fullenwider said he’d like the municipality to ban the sale of alcohol to people who’ve made two or more trips to the Anchorage Safety Center — a place where the publicly impaired are taken to sober up. The ban could be accomplished by some sort of mark on an offender’s I.D., Fullenwider said.
“It’s the first idea or suggestion that I’ve ever heard of that kind of makes sense,” he said.
For the fire chief, ongoing issues with public inebriation are contributing to another problem: crushingly high call volumes for paramedics in North Anchorage. At an Assembly Public Safety Committee meeting earlier this month, Fullenwider told Assembly members that Stations 1, 3 and 4 all see more than 4,200 calls annually. And according to Jim Vignola, AFD’s deputy chief of operations, the most calls come from the area surrounding Bean’s Cafe and the Brother Francis Shelter. Northwest Mountain View accounts for the second highest number of calls, Vignola said.
Not only does it divert paramedic resources from other areas in town, Fullenwider said the extreme call volume is causing pervasive burnout among area medics. After about 3,500 calls per year, he said, people start to hurt. Under the current workload, the fire chief said some paramedics were giving up their licenses and leaving their jobs. He said the emotional toll was just too steep.
But when the Assembly’s Budget and Finance Committee met Friday to take up fire academy funding and discuss the city’s paramedic problem, Fullenwider said lawmakers shouldn’t forget the role of chronic intoxication in Anchorage public safety.
Assemblywoman Amy Demboski agreed.
“It’s something that nobody’s really discussing now, but a big part of the problem is downtown Anchorage,” Demboski told her fellow committee members.
The Eagle River lawmaker is pushing the Assembly to act quickly to put more paramedics on the streets — and to find a way to reduce the number of medical emergencies coming from the downtown area. As it stands, she said too many of those emergency situations stem from alcohol-related issues.
“We’re getting a lot of calls to Brother Francis Shelter, we’re getting a lot of calls to Bean’s Cafe, and that’s tying up a lot of our medic units,” she said.
While the municipality needs to focus on fully funding public safety staffing, Demboski said, chronic inebriation was an important piece of the puzzle that deserved equal attention.
In years past, the Anchorage Safety Patrol has helped take the strain off the fire department by picking up people who are overly intoxicated in a public place and driving them to the Anchorage Safety Center to sleep it off. The ASP vans respond to calls dispatched through the fire department, and make their own patrols throughout the northern half of the municipality.
The program is operated by contract through the Department of Health and Human Services, and municipal data shows the safety patrol responded to more than 28,000 calls in 2012. It served more than 3,400 clients, statistics show, and helped save fire department resources for other medical emergencies.
But Fullenwider said it’s not enough.
Municipal numbers show that in 2012, 51 people accounted for more than 23 percent of ASC intakes. About half of the safety center’s clients made two or more trips to the sleep-off center in 2012. The fire chief said an ordinance banning them from buying booze seemed like the only thing that might make a difference.
“We’ve tried everything else — sleep-off center, the whole works — and it just doesn’t work,” Fullenwider said.
Lieutenant Garry Gilliam, head of the Anchorage Police Department’s Community Action Policing Team, has a similar suggestion for curbing chronic public inebriation in Anchorage. He said a court-ordered, 30-day detox for safety center clients with a track record might help reduce illegal camping in Anchorage public parks and stem the tide of alcohol-related calls to APD, AFD and ASP.
A plan like that would most likely face legal hurdles, Gilliam said, but it’s the kind of action necessary to make a change.
It was a message Fullenwider echoed to Assembly members Thursday: Change requires a tougher approach to public intoxication. He said treating chronic public inebriates similarly to repeat drunk drivers might be a step in the right direction.
“Given, it’s not the total answer, and initially people will have other people buy their alcohol for them, but eventually those people that buy alcohol for them will be in the same state,” Fullenwider said.
Bob Lincoln, a volunteer with the Mountain View Community Patrol, said he thinks the plan could work. He patrols the neighborhood just east of the safety center, just up the hill from the downtown shelter and Bean’s Cafe, and has seen more than a little public intoxication while driving his evening rounds.
Lincoln said banning chronic inebriates from purchasing alcohol might help lessen the problem. Like Fullenwider, he said plenty of people would probably find ways to get their booze through other means.
But, he said, “you have to start somewhere.”
Lincoln said he thought levying a fine for repeat trips to the safety center could also help cut back on chronic public inebriation. If someone has money to buy booze, he reasoned, they have money to pay for the consequences of drinking to excess.
A policy like that might begin to deter public drunkenness, Lincoln said. It could make a difference.
Thursday, when Anchorage’s fire chief pitched his plan to ban repeat ASC clients from buying alcohol, he shared the same hope.
“It’s not a cure, obviously, but I think it will slow the problem down a little bit,” Fullenwider said.