- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 21, 2015

LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) - No one should call 911 for a non-emergency such as a skin rash or just because they’re feeling tired.

But people do.

Lancaster County’s emergency dispatchers have fielded calls from people who say they need help making a sandwich. They’ve gotten 911 calls from people who complain their kids won’t get up for school. And they’ve gotten calls from people who are too hot in their homes and want someone to turn down their heat.

The volume of such frivolous calls, in fact, has spiked dramatically over the past year. And the increase worries emergency responders in Lancaster County, who say those kinds of calls cost them money and divert valuable resources away from real emergencies.

“It’s been about the last 10 months where we’ve really seen the increase,” said Mike Weaver, director of the county’s 911 communication system.

Estimates from the four largest ambulance companies in the county put the increase in what are termed “public service” calls to anywhere from 30 to 100 percent, depending on the area.

NO SOLUTIONS

Weaver is part of an eight-county regional emergency group that has been meeting about the problem in the last couple weeks to try and come up with solutions.

But so far there haven’t been any.

“We are the true equal opportunity provider, we don’t discriminate for any reason. If someone calls for help whatever that may be, we don’t let any call go unanswered,” said Weaver.

“But the problem is that there are folks basically grocery shopping and tired out and have trouble getting out of the car and they call 911. That is not a medical problem. That call is taking a unit out of service. Two minutes later we may get an emergency,” Weaver said.

Bob May, executive director of the Lancaster Emergency Medical Services ambulance organization, the largest such organization in the county, said his crews were dispatched to a woman’s home 20 times in one year because her couch cushions were so soft she had trouble getting up out of them.

They finally put a sign on her sofa that said, “Don’t sit here, sit in a chair.”

“We’ve tolerated this for years, but it has to stop,” May said. “We’re so busy now and there have been times when these ‘so-called’ public service calls have delayed the response to an actual emergency.”

May and Weaver are adamant that people with real emergencies or medical conditions should not hesitate to call 911 for assistance and or transport to a hospital.

May said some 911 callers only say they need assistance and an ambulance. They don’t give any details.

“When they get there, the EMTs find out it is not a medical emergency,” May said. “Someone just needs assistance.”

911: THE NEW FAMILY PHYSICIAN?

Suzette Kreider, clinical operations manager at Northwest EMS, said some people use the 911 system and hospital emergency room in lieu of being seen by a family physician.

“People think they can be seen quicker in the emergency room if they come in by ambulance, but going in by ambulance is not quicker,” she said. “Patients are still triaged depending on their level of emergency. People call an ambulance for things they could be seen for in a doctor’s office.”

Kreider said ambulance companies receive no reimbursement when they respond to a residence for a non-emergency such as to help someone get up.

Even ambulance crews transport a patient to the hospital, most private and public health insurance plans do not reimburse the agencies for a non-medical situation, according to several emergency representatives.

Ambulance organizations lose tens of thousands of dollars each year.

An ambulance transport can cost anywhere from $300 to $900 per trip, depending on the level of medical care needed. For public service calls, most organizations get nothing.

A GROWING PROBLEM

At Susquehanna EMS, chief Michael Fitzgibbons said the volume of public service calls doubled in 2014 to 110. They represent only a small fraction of the 8,000 total calls from Mount Joy, East and West Hempfield townships and the surrounding area. But they are still taxing on the agency.

“People should use the 911 system wisely,” he said. “We’re not a taxi.”

Fitzgibbons said some people have called to be taken to the hospital and, once there, immediately check out because they really just needed a ride.

He said his service often gets calls to nursing or retirement homes for someone who has fallen.

“When we ask why someone who works there wouldn’t pick this person off the floor, we’re told that staff is not allowed to lift patients because they might hurt their back,” Fitzgibbons said.

Weaver said he thinks the problem is growing because of changes in modern society.

“In the old days, people living in a neighborhood kept a watch on their neighbors and helped take care of them,” he said. “Now we have all this social media but we don’t have as much of a social network.

“We’ve gotten calls when people are lonely and want somebody to talk to, so we switch them to a non-emergency line and talk to them for a few minutes,” Weaver said.

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Online: https://bit.ly/1IgnTdE

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Information from: LNP, https://lancasteronline.com

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