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VOL. 130 | NO. 94 | Thursday, May 14, 2015

IBM Team on Non-Emergency 911 Calls Sounds Familiar Theme in Memphis

By Bill Dries

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A team of outside experts will come to Memphis for a short period of time to analyze a specific problem and make recommendations to City Hall.


If that scenario sounds familiar, it’s because Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. sought the same solution in February to his administration’s stalled plan for a Mid-South Fairgrounds renovation.

In that case, Wharton proposed a panel of outside experts from the Urban Land Institute, a service offered to various cities by ULI since 1948. Since Wharton’s February call for the panel to analyze the Fairgrounds, there’s been no further word from the administration on such a solution.

This time, a the team of six IBM executives will spend three weeks in Memphis to study the problem of non-emergency 911 medical calls.

The IBM team, which will serve at no cost to the city, was announced Monday, May 12, in Las Vegas at IBM’s annual “Edge” conference.

Memphis was one of more than 100 cities that applied for the free expert advice; it is one of 16 worldwide that IBM chose in this year’s Smarter Cities program.

“It’s kind of like a good housekeeping seal. It will open up Memphis to resources from other national groups,” Wharton said in a YouTube video interview from Las Vegas. “IBM is like this huge magnet.”

Wharton’s approach to problems like non-emergency calls is not without critics, including those challenging his re-election effort on the October Memphis ballot.

Those critics argue that Wharton’s tendency too often is to study instead of act.

Wharton is aware of the criticism as well as the generally positive reception he gets when he talks to groups in other cities and at gatherings like IBM’s Edge conference about the nature of the city’s innovations from bicycle lanes to public housing changes.

“The preferred future will be that when we come up with innovation like this, it will be a nonevent,” Wharton said in Las Vegas.

Wharton also has been open about using such expertise as a vehicle to win grant funding for an action plan resulting from the findings.

The administration already has made some proposals for cutting down on the non-emergency calls, which Wharton said accounted for 25,000 of the 120,000 calls to the Memphis 911 system in 2014.

Outgoing chief administrative officer George Little and Memphis Fire director Michael Putt told Memphis City Council members in March that the city plans to test software this summer that would route non-emergency ambulance calls to registered nurses provided by local hospitals.

The nurses would evaluate the needs of the caller and direct those callers to clinics or other measures short of a trip to the emergency department.

A city-provided transportation card worth $25 also has been discussed for such callers.

Wharton mentioned Monday in Las Vegas anticipating regular calls by “frequent flyers” – those who call for ambulances on a regular basis. He foresees nurses checking in on those callers periodically.

“What we are emphasizing here is not what we are taking away but what we are bringing additionally,” Wharton said. “Through this technology we will be able to have a good diagnosis, a good record on the frequent flyers.”

The still-tentative fire department changes also include moving training for emergency medical technicians to off-duty hours, reducing the city’s training cost by more than half of the current $40,167 per firefighter. That proposed change has drawn strong opposition from the Memphis Fire Fighters Association.

Wharton has consistently taken an approach to government initiatives that favors a blend of private nonprofit or foundation funding for the organization of the effort and grants, both public and private, sought to carry out a plan of action.

The best example is the administration’s work with the Bloomberg Foundations on the city’s Innovation Delivery Team and the Family Rewards anti-poverty program that has been the most visible part of Wharton’s still emerging “Blueprint to Prosperity” plan.

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