Binge drinking at UC Berkeley strains EMS system

The I-Team has an exclusive look at the binge drinking problem at UC Berkeley and the strain it's putting on emergency services.
November 7, 2013 11:38:23 PM PST
Berkeley has a drinking problem. An increasing number of Cal students are getting so drunk, paramedics have to take them to the hospital, and it's putting a serious strain on emergency services for the entire city.

In an exclusive I-Team investigation, Dan Noyes shows us what's called a "barf bib," the name by which it's sold. Since the start of the school year -- just over two months -- paramedics have used these more than a hundred times on drunken Cal students to take them to the hospital.

Fire Dispatch: "Medical emergency District Three."

The start of this school year caught UC Berkeley officials, campus police, and city fire by surprise. Never before in one night have so many students gotten so drunk that they needed an ambulance to take them to the hospital.

Fire Dispatch: "Berkeley 1, Engine 5, we need an ambulance for a second patient, 2715 Channing."

Fire department reports and dispatch recordings obtained by the ABC7 News I-Team under the California Public Records Act tell the story. On Sunday night, Aug 25, the calls came in from frat houses, sororities, and dorms.

Fire Dispatch: "20-year-old male ETOH."

ETOH, that's shorthand for ethyl alcohol, someone who's in danger of alcohol poisoning.

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates tells us, "I think we had something like 18 calls, and so we were transporting. It was a major concern, because actually, you know, the ambulances we have are limited, so they had basically taken all of the city's capacity."

Berkeley fire tells us the department's seven fire engines, two ladder trucks, and three ambulances were so busy, they had to call for mutual aid. Ambulances from surrounding cities rushed to help.

"As we would respond to one group to the campus for one patient, another call would come in," Berkeley Fire Deputy Chief Avery Webb said.

At 1:37 that morning, a crew notes "extremely high call volume at UC Berkeley causing delays in obtaining ambulance transport." A fire truck was there, but the patient had to wait twenty minutes for an ambulance to take them to the hospital.

"Now turned out, it was a drunk kid," a Berkeley firefighter/paramedic told us, "But, in reality, if that was someone having a heart attack or a stroke, that 20 minutes are key to their survival."

That night put a huge strain on the nearest hospital, Alta Bates. The emergency room was full of drunken students, so ambulances had to be diverted to other hospitals.

"What we have experienced is that people are drinking more," says Terry Arnold of Alta Bates Hospital. He heads the Alta Bates treatment program, and he works with Cal students, "It's not unlikely for me to have assess a client here or have my people assess a client and say, 'Well, I took eleven shots in one minute.' Now, your system can't handle that."

We wanted to find out firsthand what's happening at the Cal campus, but Berkeley fire refused to approve a ride-along with one of its crews. So, weekend after weekend, the I-Team monitored the dispatch channels and often beat the firefighters to the scene. We found the limp bodies of passed-out students being lugged out of frat houses.

Frat member: "She's underage, you have no right to be here."
Dan: "Well, that's the problem."

A sorority member put her hand over our camera, to block the picture of a drunken student being taken away.

Sorority member: "I really need you not to do that, please."
Dan: "I'm doing my job. Do not do that."

And at the dorms, a barf bib is placed over their head to protect paramedics from getting sprayed, and off to the hospital.

It's such a sensitive issue that Deputy Chief Webb also would not allow us to interview any firefighter or paramedic about what they've seen on the Cal campus. But one is stepping forward, not showing his face for fear of reprisal.

Berkeley firefighter/paramedic: "If I was a parent and my kid was going to this college, I would be really, really concerned; especially if it's a young woman."
Dan: "On these calls, has sexual assault become an issue?"
Berkeley firefighter/paramedic: "Absolutely."
Dan: "How so?"
Berkeley firefighter/paramedic: "We stopped a group of three or four guys that were trying to carry a young woman who was unconscious out of the party. When we confronted the gentleman, he actually admitted he didn't even know her, so who knows his, what his intentions were."

The firefighter/paramedic tells us Cal has done little to stop the binge drinking. Even though campus police usually accompany fire crews on the calls, they rarely write citations.

Dan: "You're saying that police officers have told you or your colleagues that they are instructed not to cite the kids for underage drinking?"
Berkeley firefighter/paramedic: "That is correct. We've had several police officers tell us that from the UC system."

A spokesman for UC campus police sent an email, denying officers are instructed not to cite students. But take a look at the numbers they provided. We've identified 107 drunken Cal students transported to the hospital since the start of this school year, the majority are underage. How many students did campus police cite in that same time period? Two. They say they can't cite them if they don't see them drinking, and that they don't cover the frats and sororities because they are technically off campus. But, there were plenty of calls from campus housing.

"The fact that the numbers are going up is in fact possible evidence that we're making a difference," said Karen Hughes.

When we called for an interview, UC Berkeley steered us to Hughes, the manager of the PartySafe@Cal program. Hughes confirms the number of drunk students being transported to the hospital is up over the past three years, but she tells me that's because of better education; that students are urged to call 911 if they see a friend in trouble. The message is reinforced on pamphlets and fans passed out at football games.

Mackenzie Cater, an intern with PartySafe@Cal, showed us one of the fans, "Targeted messages on the back about the recovery position if somebody is passed out after drinking."

But Hughes admits there is much more work to do. She tells me, if she can reach the most prominent 50 to 75 party hosts at Cal and urge them not to over-serve their guests, perhaps the drinking culture can change.

"I live in Berkeley," Hughes said. "If it was my child who had needed something urgent that night and an ambulance was hard pressed to come to us because they were dealing with the unnecessarily overly-intoxicated student, that would make me angry."

Cal is not alone. Campuses around the Bay Area are grappling with this issue, but UC Berkeley has definitely seen a surge this year.

One possible solution to take the pressure off the hospitals is for some schools to keep the student health center staffed on party nights. Drunk students would wind up there, not in the ER.

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