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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Guest Commentary: Where's the Fire?

Word To The Wise: Where’s The Fire?

By E.A. Roberts


The first ever Senior Academy was held on February 28, 2008. This project was the brainchild of Trease Petersen of the Davis Police Department, and also sponsored by the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office. Approximately fifty highly motivated seniors attended, which made for some quite lively discussion. One elderly citizen posed a provocative question to Emily Lo of the Davis Fire Department, asking about a recent column that appeared in the Davis Enterprise.

In the newspaper, columnist Rich Rifkin had expressed frustration that a full contingent of fire trucks with equipment would show up along with ambulance service, for a simple medical emergency. His contention was this overkill seemed unnecessary. He has since followed up with another editorial, highly critical of past and present City Council members on a related issue. Sizable salaries, pensions and medical benefits for city fire/police personnel are of great concern. The fear is Davis may be headed for bankruptcy as is threatened in Vallejo.

As it was explained to those of us seated in the audience at the Senior Academy, ambulance service in Davis is contracted out to a private company (AMR) in one location. On the other hand, the city has three fire departments strategically located throughout the community. By the way, it is in need of a fourth station, because of all the new housing developments that have been built in north, south and east Davis over the past several years. The operational area of the city’s fire departments covers not only the city, but Highway 113 and the Yolo Causeway as well.

If a call comes in for a car crash on Route 80, it is not uncommon for the receipt of another emergency dispatch message, while personnel and equipment are at the accident scene. Multiple alarms such as this occur with great frequency, requiring a fire station to “move up and cover” the next request for assistance, without having to go back to the station to pick up what was left behind in either manpower or equipment. This type of “move up and cover” situation in the Davis operational area has happened 800 times in the last year.

Furthermore, every fireperson is EMT trained, which allows them to stabilize a patient if the ambulance has not yet arrived. Ambulance lag time can happen if the call comes in from the opposite side of town from where AMR headquarters is situated. Because the city’s fire department has three stations advantageously located, fire personnel frequently arrive ahead of any ambulance service. That one or two minute discrepancy can mean the difference between life or death for some critically ill citizens. A rapid response time (maximum strived for is five minutes) is all important in a medical emergency.

If the incident in question is an automobile accident, several people may be hurt. This will require far more paramedics than what a single ambulance may carry. Even for a simple medical emergency, one person will take vital signs, while another is doing chest compressions, and another is collecting information, as another quickly collects medications and soothes distressed family members. It should also be noted firefighters get paid whether they are sitting back at the fire station or are out in the field.

Firefighter Lo imparted some other invaluable information as well. She advised the elderly audience to consider preventing falls - the highest incident call the fire department receives. Simple things suggested were the removal of small mats that can be tripped over; installation of grab bars in the shower; or provision of appropriate lighting where necessary. Smoke alarms that can be installed with a ten year shelf life without changing batteries are now available. It was my understanding the fire department will provide and install smoke alarms upon request.

Everyone was advised to have a disaster preparedness plan in place, and a minimum of whatever is necessary (e.g. food, water, batteries, battery operated or hand crank radio) to survive in place for three days. Emergency kits in the form of backpacks can be purchased at Home Depot in Woodland. The kits can then be inserted in a small suitcase with wheels, for easy transport. Emergency contact numbers should be placed under the acronym ICE (In Case of Emergency) in your cell phone directory. A copy of any DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order should be placed on your refrigerator.

Whether or not the reader objects to the liberal salaries fire and police are paid is an entirely separate matter; or that they are allowed to “double dip” (collect a pension from one employer while working for or receiving a pension from another). This subject has come up quite frequently at City Council meetings of late. I can remember Mayor Greenwald repeatedly demanding to know how the city was going to pay for these generous reimbursement packages. Councilman Souza insisted Davis would somehow manage, it always does.

My comment to that is the Davis School Board probably said the same thing in the past. But look at what has happened since - the school district is actually being forced to close schools to make ends meet. I have never believed in engaging in the ostrich syndrome - that allows politicians to hide their heads in the sand. It is important to make some attempt to divert potential disasters. Think HURRICANE KATRINA! “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

However, what do we do now, since these generous salary packages are already in place? It is one thing to complain about what has gone on in the past, but quite another to determine how the city is going to keep paying for it. If I remember correctly, our chief financial officer stated he was certain the city’s budget gap would be closed within the next five years. Yet as Mayor Greenwald pointed out, not taken into account was the payout of employee benefits due and owing in the future. That appears shortsighted at best, disingenuous or downright dishonest at worst.

Also speaking at the Senior Academy was Dave Edwards from the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office. Identity theft was his main topic of interest. Seniors were warned that because they are primarily the ones with the financial wherewithal, it makes them a prime target of predatory con artists. The elderly were advised to limit the information carried on their person; not to give out date of birth, Social Security or Drivers License Numbers to anyone unless absolutely necessary (especially over the telephone); and to monitor their finances (; 1-877-322-8228) and take quick action if something is amiss.

All trash should be shredded if any personal or financial information shows on it. If your identity is stolen, then the following steps need to be taken: 1) notify the credit card company; 2) contact one of the major credit reporting agencies (Equifax: 1-800-525-6285; Experian: 1-888-EXERIAN; TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289); 3) put a fraud alert on your account; 4) contact each creditor of a fraudulent account (I would advise doing it in writing); 5) report the incident to law enforcement, and get a copy of the police report; 6) contact the Federal Trade Commission (; 1-877-IDTHEFT); 7) close out all tampered accounts. Identity theft destroys the ability to obtain credit, and can subject the victim to harassment by collection agencies. DETER, DETECT, DEFEND.

Detective Bezuglov of the Davis Police Department talked extensively about cyber crime, of which identity theft is the top offense. The number one target are students, followed by senior citizens. Attendees were advised not to do banking online; nor open any emails from an unknown source; and make sure to have security protection for any computer. Nevertheless, thieves can still hack into a computer, so the less personal information on the hard drive, the better.

Thieves can fill out a change of address card, and reroute mail. Thus if your mail goes missing, check it out. “Dumpster diving” at a place of business is commonplace now, which makes it imperative that all documents be shredded. If a business becomes aware that a consumer’s information has been stolen, there is a responsibility to report it to the customer involved. However, if the company does not have the contents of their computer backed up, resurrecting information may not be possible.

There is a device out there that can be purchased called a “key logger”, that can read every stroke made on a computer. It is meant to be used as a parental control device for software, but in the hands of the wrong person, can be used to gain access to personal information. Do not allow anyone, including friends or relatives, to use your laptop or home computer. Beware of wireless connections, as it allows for computer “sniffing” - another name for wireless “phishing” (fishing for personal information on a computer by pretending to be a legitimate financial institution).

Make sure to put your name on the DO NOT CALL list (; 1-888-290-4236), but beware of ensuing telephone surveys. If you give to some charities, they may sell your name to other entities. There are actually websites that sell fake ID’s for any state in the nation. Credit card fraud is committed with a device called a “skimmer”. A dishonest waitress at a restaurant, who takes your credit card away to make payment, can “skim” all your credit card information (name, account number, how much money is available, other account information) in one quick swipe. It is better if you pay cash.

Bank debit cards are not as safe as credit cards. A debit card is not insured, and allows a con artist to reach directly into your account if they can bypass your PIN #, whereas a credit card is covered by federal insurance except for the first $50. By the time Detective Bezuglov was finished speaking about cyber crime, one senior said she was thinking about getting rid of her computer altogether. Clearly for most of us, this solution is not practical, since we use our computers as such an integral part of our lives. Nevertheless, don’t neglect computer security as a regular practice.

Peggy Osborne from the CA Attorney General’s Office warned of Medicare/MediCal fraud. As she pointed out so acutely, when a senior is conned out of their money, it often results in a downward cycle of shame, despair and depression, accompanied by premature death. She warned not to answer the door if the person on the other side is unknown. A clever salesman can talk anyone into some very detrimental schemes.

I had a case not long ago, involving a Russian speaking salesman. This sly swindler sweet-talked a Spanish speaking senior, with Parkinson’s Disease, into enrolling in a completely unsuitable Medicare health insurance plan. My client was promised the moon, that there would be no cost to him (it was on the paperwork), which was an outright falsehood. The insurance company in question has since been reported to the appropriate agency, and the original insurance policy was reinstated. But my client is still on the hook for any medical costs attributable to the period of time he was not covered (one month), which he cannot afford. To have Parkinson’s Disease is expensive.

Caregivers have to be watched diligently. They can steal personal information, medications, jewelry, and/or money. Many seniors will not report the crime because they are in absolute dread of being placed in a nursing home. A Durable Power of Attorney can be a license to steal if it is not carefully crafted and well thought out. Limit the powers given to the absolute minimum as a general rule.

Operation Guardian has been instituted by the Attorney General’s Office in CA, to make spot checks in nursing homes. The current law only requires one inspection every five years. If the Attorney General’s Office receives a complaint, they can send in an agent unannounced at any time of day or night, accompanied by a doctor, nurse and forensic accountant. Charts can be pulled, anything can be inspected. Various skilled nursing facilities have been charged with fraud, neglect, failure to report, and elder abuse. 65% of patients in nursing homes have no one visiting them. If your loved one is in a skilled nursing facility, make spot checks and get to know the staff. Be vigilant.

Last but not least, Ike Iketani from the CA Highway Patrol talked about older driver safety. He reminded the audience that a Request for Reexamination has nothing to do with age, and everything to do with driving ability. Law enforcement looks for a pattern of behavior of cognitive impairment. As of July, using a cell phone in your hands while driving will be illegal. CHP officers are given empathy training, in which actual medical conditions of the elderly, such as neck rotation problems, are simulated. Young officers tend not to cite older drivers because the offender reminds them too much of their own aged mother or father.

New traffic devices are cutting down on car accidents. Some recent pedestrian buttons can be held down longer if there is a need for more time to cross because of a physical impairment. Roundabouts are intended to be “traffic calming” measures, but the blind and disabled don’t always hear or can’t get out of the way of oncoming traffic. Crosswalks are considered a right of way for pedestrians, even if they are not painted as such. The CHP now has airplanes that can target multiple vehicles for speeding. You can feel for the number 5 on your cell phone in the dark in an emergency, because it has a raised bump, and then figure out where the other numbers are from there.

If you should be unfortunate enough to have a flat tire on the freeway, pull over as far to the side of the road as is practicable. Try and make it to the next exit, rather than remain as a sitting duck for another car to hit. It is permissible to drive on the shoulder of the road with a flat tire. If you have a car service like AAA, have them change the flat tire, rather than attempt to do it yourself. It is imperative to always carry a cell phone with you. Even if you don’t have one, you can purchase a very basic type with minutes on it at your local grocery store. It is encouraged to report stolen cars, by calling 1-800 TELL CHP.

Make sure to monitor driving skills regularly, by signing up at the Davis Senior Center, for Car Fit and AAA Roadwise Review. AARP also has some sort of driving course for the elderly. Those with limited driving abilities can restrict their driving to daytime only, avoid freeways or left turns (three right turns make one left turn!), travel to only well known destinations close by, take public transit whenever practical (more on this in a future article). Any sort of medical condition that could cause blackouts (e.g. uncontrolled or severe diabetes) require driving be given up altogether, for public safety.

A thank you to Quiznos, Dos Coyotes, Noah’s Bagel’s, all on Cowell Blvd, for donating food for guests at this event.

LESSON TO BE LEARNED: Be safe, not sorry. Try and head off trouble before it happens. Never hesitate to report criminal activity to law enforcement. Deterrence is vital.

Rebuilding Together - If any senior is in need of safety devices (e.g. toilet risers, grab bars, railings, wheel chair ramps), and lives in their own home in Yolo County, the equipment and installation can be obtained: free of charge to low income folks; a reasonable fee for service program is also available. Please refer Davis seniors to this program if you know of anyone applicable. There is still $10,000 available in community development block grant funding to serve our city's elderly population in this regard.

Anna Zoubak - The lovely Russian lady that received redevelopment funding, to rebuild a modular home on her condemned property, has died. Her disabled adult son will now benefit from the beneficence of the federal dollars generously distributed by the City of West Sacramento.

FRAUD ALERT - You are not going to believe this one! Here is how it works: A bogus clinic with access to real medical information starts fraudulently billing insurance companies/Medicare/Medicaid for treatment never delivered. Patients are not swindled out of money, but medical records have fraudulent treatments difficult to remove/correct because of federal HIPPA regulations. The modified records are then used if a life threatening emergency occurs, and can result in the patient being given the wrong medication. Several deaths have been the result.

FRAUD ALERT - A company is asking seniors to provide extensive personal information, including SSN, Medicare #, financial details, medical information. The customer completes an IRREVOCABLE Durable Power of Attorney that gives the company the right to lifelong access to medical records. A form is signed authorizing and directing the heirs to provide a copy of the death certificate. In exchange for completing the “survey” and participating in the program, the senior is given $1,000 immediately and receives $250/yr for the rest of his/her life.

The packet is extensive and confusing, and improper use/disclosure of the information will put seniors at risk for financial exploitation and identity theft. This appears to be a STOLI operation (Strange Oriented Life Insurance), which may be technically legal. It appears to be a company that purchases information, then may insure the individual or sell the information to a speculator, who could be out of the country (see and search for STOLI).

Elaine Roberts Musser is an attorney who concentrates her efforts on elder law and aging issues, especially in regard to consumer affairs. If you have a particular question or topic you would like to see addressed in this column, please feel free to remark in the commentary section below.