Fenger Pointing

Becky Fenger | August 13, 2008

Becky FengerCalling 9-1-1

The nation was laughing last week at the police report filed on Reginald Peterson of Jacksonville, Florida, who called 911 on July 31 when his two Subway sandwiches were not prepared to his satisfaction. He called a second time to complain about their slow response time, and wanted police to oversee the correction to the absent sandwich toppings with greater alacrity. Efforts to explain to Mr. Peterson the proper use of the 911 system failed.

reginald petersonResidents of Scottsdale are reminded of the time when their former mayor, Sam Campana, dialed 911 when she couldn’t find an address in her fair city and was late for an appointment. It was, and still is, grist for the humor mill. Not so funny are the consequences of such calls for the emergency personnel who must respond.

I had the pleasure of meeting an attractive, muscular female who has been a fireman for two decades now, first with Rural Metro and then eighteen years for Phoenix Fire Department. In any 24-hour period, a station will average 18 to 23 calls. Eighty percent of the calls are medically related, and, of those, 80 percent are legitimate. But every day will bring its share of Reginald-type calls to sap the manpower and resources of our dedicated first responders.

“We have become social workers for people who can’t make decisions for themselves,” Crystal R. of Station 60 stated matter-of-factly. And that’s a very expensive way to go.

The reasons people feel compelled to make that 911 call are many and varied. Some use the system as their major health care provider. Too many folks believe that the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS) is their medical insurance policy.

Many 911 calls are less than life threatening. One was from an insomniac who wanted to pass the night hours with company. Another came from a woman who, unlike the insomniac, had just had a bad dream and wanted calming. A child fell off a swing and was not physically injured, but the mother wanted reassurance that she need not drive her kid to the doctor’s office. Then there are those who just want to get out of the heat for a while and land a meal at the Emergency ward. Yes, it happens more than you would care to know.

You might ask why fire stations will dispatch manpower to these callers. Well, masters of the 911 game have learned that there are magic phrases they can utter into the telephone that will, by policy, get sirens headed their way whether the symptoms are actual or phantom. One is “chest pains.” Another one is: “I have suicidal thoughts and may harm myself.” Emergency personnel are not allowed to tell a caller “No” if they ask to go to a hospital, no matter how suspect the motive. A fair number are seeking drugs. Beats having to schlep down to your dealer, I guess. And cheaper. Few will be writing out checks for the cost of their transport.

Still others put a fair amount of imagination into their calls. One lady lived in south Phoenix, but felt the desire to worship the Lord clear up at I-17 and Greenway. So she took a bus. But, she stayed up north long enough to thoughtlessly miss the last bus home.

What did she do? She called 911 to have them deliver one of their taxi vouchers.

Unfortunately for her, she was told that there are mileage limitations to the taxi vouchers and she didn’t qualify, nor was there any medical emergency.

Well, she would fix that. The next call the dispatcher received was from a CVS pharmacy at 11:30 p.m. The same stranded lady had crossed the street to the pharmacy where she told them she was having “trouble breathing.” The magic phrase worked (it never fails) and soon the lady was asking to be transported to Memorial Hospital. (That was within a short walk of her home, you see.) The taxpayer and the Lord shall provide.

Would a minimum charge of $20 in cases like this stop the abuses of our manpower and equipment? After all, just try gassing up one of those fire trucks. It might be difficult to get the policy passed, since it would be argued that it is unfair to the poor. Crystal suggests that the Valley be outfitted with smaller vehicles that could be used for these non-emergency runs. They could be manned with officers who were on light duty, possibly those recovering from an injury. It makes eminent sense. I hope that doesn’t jinx it.

Photo: Reginald Peterson
Courtesy photo