Police, firefighters prepare for potential flood of alcohol intoxication calls

Fire trucks race to the Arch Street fire
Anjuli Sastry/File

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Update: This article has been updated to reflect information from the Center for Student Conduct. 

Given last year’s upswing in alcohol intoxication incidents among freshmen, law enforcement officials and emergency personnel beefed up resources to respond to a potentially high caseload of inebriated students needing medical attention during the next few weekends.

Although authorities did not tabulate the number of alcohol-related calls they received this weekend as of press time, Berkeley Fire Department Chief Gil Dong said there weren’t many calls Saturday night, but he anticipates many parties Sunday and Monday nights. Before the weekend arrived, firefighters and police prepared for a large volume of calls but hoped their services wouldn’t be needed at the same level as last year, when UCPD responded to eight cases of alcohol-related illness during an approximate one-hour period the night after most students moved in. Police and medical professionals recall the experience as unparalleled and demanding.

A 21-year-old student who was drunk in public became combative with paramedics, resisted arrest and was subsequently transported to jail, according to crime log information. Just before 5 a.m. that same day last year, UCPD responded to two male students, aged 18 and 19, who were injured near Memorial Stadium.

City and campus police departments are now each dedicating two officers to specifically focus on alcohol enforcement. Campus events, concerts at the Greek Theatre and parties on Southside are the main concerns, said UCPD Lt. Marc DeCoulode. Teams of Berkeley Police Department and UCPD officers will patrol neighborhoods surrounding the campus Thursday through Saturday nights, targeting alcohol offenses, according to a BPD community alert.

“A lot of time, it’s freshmen who haven’t been alone before,” DeCoulode said. “Some people tend to go out and enjoy themselves a little too much.”

Last year, in the first two months after students arrived on campus, the fire department transported more than 100 individuals to the hospital, according to the alert. The department was forced to rely on mutual aid from other sources, including Paramedics Plus, a company that contracts with Alameda County.

“New kids who move into this town who barely even know their own address get so drunk they forget where they live,” said Kristin Tucker, a BFD firefighter-paramedic.

After working for the fire department for about 10 years, Tucker started the Every Bear Goes Home program in 2012 to teach UC Berkeley students about fire safety and the dangers of alcohol intoxication and recreational and prescription drug use. She and her engine company give 45-minute presentations at fraternity and sorority houses, which are required to complete certain educational and awareness programs.

“There’s the potential for some really bad stuff to happen at these fraternity parties when they block the exits and cover the windows,” she said. “They’re essentially creating large human ovens.”

Tucker warns students to look out for danger signs in potentially alcohol-poisoned peers such as their inability to remain conscious or to control their airways. In her experience, Tucker has seen students choke on their own vomit and four students die from alcohol-related injuries, including those who fell from rooftops.

“Even if we save one life or prevent one traumatic fall off a roof, it’s worth it to us,” she said.

Due to the limited number of beds — 22 — at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center’s emergency room, fire department personnel were forced last year to transport patients to hospitals farther away.

According to James Hirshberg, medical director of the hospital’s emergency department, the primary concern with intoxicated patients pertains to their airways. Medical staff will administer anti-nausea medication and fluids, ensure their heads stay at a 45-degree angle and monitor patients to avoid aspiration: the inhalation of foreign substances such as vomit.

“The last thing we need is an emergency room filled with intoxicated students,” said Carolyn Kemp, the hospital’s spokesperson, Friday.

Hirshberg said having a large number of intoxicated students prevents staff from treating other patients who need care. In the city, firefighters are concerned that a high volume of alcohol-related calls may decrease their ability to respond to major emergencies elsewhere in Berkeley.

“A structure fire would be disastrous if we already have three of our engines picking up intoxicated students. Then, we may be responding to a situation with incomplete resources or calling on mutual aid,” said BFD Deputy Chief Avery Webb on Friday.

The fire department allocated an additional ambulance this weekend so that it would have four rather than its normal three to meet the anticipated high demand from students needing emergency transportation.

The cost for an ambulance transport is about $2,000, according to Webb. Students only have to cover 10 percent of the transport cost if they are covered by the campus health insurance plan, said Kim LaPean, communications manager at the Tang Center.

When students are seriously injured, it’s rare for them or their families to sue the university, according to Andrew Goldblatt, campus risk manager.

“We believe that in most cases, lawsuits of that type would have no merit,” he said in an email. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean injured students won’t sue, and if they do, the University has to expend resources to defend itself.”

In terms of sanctions against those who violate the code of conduct, the Center for Student Conduct may require the completion of an alcohol workshop or an assessment at the Tang Center. Students may also face probation or a $150 fine.

Tucker, however, who was on duty Thursday night, said the pattern this year may already prove to be different.

“Last night was amazingly quiet,” she said Friday. “I feel like last year at this time they were already out of control.”

Kimberly Veklerov is a news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @KVeklerov.