A pilot program that started in Oregon to make better use of cash-strapped emergency responders' time and services is catching on in its neighboring state, reports the Seattle Times.

Washington state's King County recently began distinguishing between emergency and nonemergency 911 calls and responding differently to each. When a person calls with a problem that requires trained medical help and or lifesaving equipment, the traditional response will still follow. But when a person calls with a "nonemergency" -- for example, someone needs primary care but lacks insurance -- callers will be greeted by one first responder who specializes in social services referral, according to the paper.

The program is operated by the King County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and Eastside Fire and Rescue.

Its purpose is to make sure that medical help is ready and available when people need it. Last year, for example, emergency crews were slow to respond to a house fire because they were dealing with a "very trivial" situation, King County EMS Medical Director Mickey Eisenberg told the Times. And by the time crews arrived, the house was engulfed in flames.

The number of people calling 911 in King County has been on the rise in recent years -- partly because of budget and program cuts to social services, according to Eisenberg. Approximately 10 percent of Eastside's 911 calls are considered nonemergencies.

This program is based on one started by the Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue in Oregon, according to an Eastside Fire and Rescue spokesperson. A similar program in Multnomah County, Ore., which Governing reported on last year, started transferring 911 callers with nonemergency, mental-health issues to qualified mental-health professionals.