L.A. Fire Department unveils ‘SOBER Unit’ aimed at reducing unnecessary emergency room visits

The Dr. David L. Murphy Sobering Center in skid row in downtown Los Angeles was officially dedicated in December, 2016.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Seeking to crackdown on unnecessary emergency room visits, the Los Angeles Fire Department has launched a new program called the Sobriety Emergency Response — or SOBER — Unit that will transport publicly intoxicated people to a sober center located on skid row in downtown.

The one-year pilot program, which has been in operation since November, includes an ambulance crew housed at Los Angeles Fire Station #4 on Temple Street, city officials said. The crew includes an emergency medical technician, a nurse practitioner and a case worker from the Dr. David L. Murphy Sobering Center on skid row.

The goal of the program is to reduce the number of times that so-called “super-users” of the 911 system require visits to the emergency room, officials said. About 40 of these callers are experiencing the chronic effects of drug and alcohol abuse and are responsible for about 2,000 emergency calls a year, according to an LAFD analysis.


Mayor Eric Garcetti, who attended a news conference last week on the pilot program, said that firefighters who transport an inebriated person to a hospital emergency room can spend up to six hours waiting for the individual to be admitted.

“That’s six hours that an EMT isn’t responding to other calls of other Angelenos,” Garcetti said. “The SOBER Unit will save time, it will save money, but most importantly, it will save lives.”

Under the program, if an individual who is the subject of a 911 call meets certain criteria, the SOBER Unit ambulance will transport that person to the sobering center on skid row. The center, which opened last year, offers detox services and has the capacity to house about 50 people. The center’s mission is to reduce incarcerations and help people find treatment programs.

LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas said about 100 people have been transported by the unit to the center since it launched, with the unit averaging about four people a day. Nearly everyone transported was homeless, he said. The unit, which operates from Tuesday to Friday, is primarily focused on downtown, but can respond to calls in Hollywood and South Los Angeles.

The fire department gets more than 1,300 emergency calls a day, with the majority of the calls for medical service, Terrazas said.