Michael Morse: The growing abuse of the 911 system
01:00 AM EST on Tuesday, November 20, 2007
A MAN IN CRANSTON dies while waiting for help to arrive. His widow grieves. As days progress the questions start: Why did it take so long for help to arrive?
Where were they?
Could he have been saved?
The answer may shock you.
Disaster strikes. 911 is called. Rescuers respond. Sometimes the problem is complex and takes dozens of emergency responders to rectify. Other times the emergency is handled by a single unit. Often, there is no emergency at all.
When is calling 911 for a medical emergency appropriate? Most folks use their best judgment before dialing. There are certain criteria -- sudden pain, weakness, injury, uncontrolled bleeding, unconsciousness or any life-threatening emergency. Highly trained and properly equipped firefighters and Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) are ready to respond at a moment's notice.
Or are they?
Our society once prided itself on rugged individualism, fairness and the ability to take care of ourselves, and our own. The tide has turned. People now expect to be taken care of.
People call 911 from their cell phones while sitting in their car so they don't have to pay for parking. They call from their homes looking for transportation, living within sight of the hospital. Doctor's offices call 911 to have patients who are not in life-threatening condition transported to the emergency room, sometimes from the same building! Many think nothing of pushing those three buttons looking for a free ride. There is a prevailing attitude of me first, it's free, I deserve it.
Because of fear of litigation, you can call 911 for any reason and somebody will come. Nightmares. Lost dentures. Hangnails. Difficulty sleeping.
Most people wouldn't dream of such irresponsible actions. Sadly, many do. And they do it often. These calls drain our resources and leave the rest of the population without adequate protection. True emergencies happen every day. Sick, dying people must wait while rescues cater to those who refuse to help themselves.
I witness the erosion of the 911 system every day. People with sore throats call 911 for a ride to the emergency room for free medical care. A person vomiting calls 911 to get free medicine. Parents of children with mild fevers call 911 so they don't have to wait, as if their problem is more important than anybody else's. Drunks call from their homes when they run out of booze, requesting detox. Kids fall and bump their head; rescues are called for ice packs.
The City of Providence is poised to reduce its firefighting force to add additional ambulances. Calls for our Emergency Medical System (EMS) are on the rise, fires are fewer. The rationale is to move manpower from fire suppression to the rescues. What appears to be common sense is in actuality surrendering to the attitudes that can destroy our society.
Somehow, our 911 system, designed to provide highly trained and equipped personnel at the scene of an emergency, has been reduced to a glorified taxi service for those who expect to be catered to.
A four-man fire company is a formidable force. Each member of the company has a vital role in every response, be it securing a water supply at a fire, doing chest compressions during cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or driving quickly and safely to your house when tragedy strikes. Compromising the integrity of that force to provide more rescues to a populace that abuses the system is a disservice to every responsible citizen.
Providence residents are well protected by their firefighters. You call, we come. We come with enough manpower to get the job done, no matter what that job may be. Taxpayers pay for a service and deserve to get their money's worth. It is a sad day when a proud, effective force must be diminished to cater to a growing population that takes government services for granted, and treats emergency vehicles as their private taxi service.
Michael Morse, of Warwick, is a Providence Fire Department lieutenant (working in Rescue 1) and author of Rescuing Providence.