It was her first week as a 2013 freshman at UC Berkeley when Sarah Jones witnessed a fellow student being rushed to the hospital with suspected alcohol poisoning. The female student, who lives in the same dorm as Jones (not her real name), was turning 18 and friends had lined up 18 shots for her to drink. Jones said she doesn’t remember how many the student had drunk before the ambulance was called.
Last week, ABC 7’s I-Team produced a troubling report about a surge in extreme drinking so far this year at UC Berkeley. According to the investigation, UC Berkeley has seen an increase in the number of students who get so drunk, often at frat parties, that they need to be taken to the hospital for care.
This has, at times, put a significant burden on the city’s ambulance services, leaving other city residents waiting for care, or requiring the Berkeley Fire Department to call for help from other paramedics in the region. It also puts pressure on the hospital closest to campus, Alta Bates, according to ABC.
According to the report, the Berkeley Fire Department refused a request from ABC to let the news team do a ride-along to see just what happens on party nights on campus.
The Berkeley Fire Department also refused to allow the news station to interview firefighters or paramedics about the situation, ABC said. So the I-Team staked out campus on party nights and, by listening to an emergency scanner, went to calls to document the scenes themselves.
According to the I-Team report, Berkeley paramedics have used what’s called a “barf bib” more than 100 times already this school year to transport highly intoxicated students to the hospital.
According to the Daily Cal, University of California police officers responded to nine reports of alcohol-related illness during move-in weekend alone. Most of those calls were to residence halls. Eight of those required ambulance trips to the emergency room.
“I’ve never seen eight in one night,” UCPD Lt. Eric Tejada told the Daily Cal. “We get one to three on a weekend, usually, at least in the first few weeks. To see eight in one night is pretty troubling.”
The Daily Cal noted an increase since 2010 in alcohol-related illness between move-in weekend and Labor Day. In 2010, UCPD responded to seven calls during that period. In 2011, that number doubled. In 2012, campus police responded to five reports during move-in weekend alone.
Conflicting reports about policies for student drinking citations
The I-Team reported that UCPD officers usually join paramedics who respond to calls on campus. According to one firefighter, who granted an anonymous interview to the I-Team, UCPD officers are told not to cite students for drinking.
UCPD disputed that assertion, according to ABC. But the station found that just two students had been cited by police so far this school year.
“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,” said Dan Noyes, the I-Team’s chief investigative reporter, during the program.
The firefighter also said the increase in binge drinking can lead to dangerous situations, especially for young women. On one call, he said, a group of male students was seen carrying an unconscious young woman out of a 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 told Noyes.
A UC Berkeley staff member who runs the PartySafe@Cal program told ABC that the increase in calls may actually be a sign that education campaigns about when to call for help are working. But she said, to really make a difference, she would need to get the message through to “the most prominent 50 to 75 party hosts at Cal and urge them not to over-serve their guests.”
“Every Bear Goes Home” and party permit enforcement are part of solution
Berkeley Fire Chief Gil Dong told Berkeleyside on Sunday that his department is working with the university to find ways to cut down on the number of students who need emergency services.
“There has been an impact on local resources,” he said. But work is underway to try to address the problem. “We’re trying to do this in a proactive way instead of a reactive way.”
Dong said part of that entails working with the university to step up enforcement of party permits. It also involves the Fire Department’s own education program, Every Bear Goes Home. Firefighter Kristin Tucker created the program to try to make student life safer by increasing awareness about the perils of drinking and drug use.
“When college is in session, the Berkeley Fire Department (BFD) runs many calls on Cal students that have become a victim/patient due to excessive drinking and/or drug use. We see these students in a multitude of precarious situations ranging from being excessively intoxicated, sexually assaulted, [a] victim of trauma, robbed, and worst of all dead,” Tucker wrote on the Every Bear website.
Tucker offers “no holds barred” presentations to students about “the dangers of binge drinking, sexual assault, robbery, fire safety and BFD operations. We also educate the students about the impact that they have on the 911 emergency system here in Berkeley.”
She said, via the Every Bear mission statement, that the goal is to let students know about “safe party practices” and, ultimately, “save lives and reduce the number of students that become patients or victims.”
“On average, there are approximately two fatalities per year of Cal students involving excessive alcohol consumption and drug use,” she wrote. “This should never happen.”