Is It Really A Crisis?: When Should You Call 999?

What exactly constitutes an “emergency”? The Oxford Dictionary classifies it as “a serious, unexpected and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action”. The “Business Dictionary” – perhaps inevitably – focuses on circumstances which might not only cause injury, but could also result in “damage to property and/or interference with the normal activities of a person or company”.

Natalie Goldberg, the American “New Age” author and speaker, takes a somewhat more pragmatic and sceptical view: Stressed people, she has declared, “believe that everything is an emergency”. This is an interpretation with which many people working in the police, fire and ambulance services would concur. The “” website specifies that “999” should be called “when a crime is in progress, a suspect is in the vicinity, there is danger to life, if a serious traffic accident has been witnessed or when violence is being used or threatened”. For what they consider to be “minor incidents” (for example, if your car is stolen), you should instead phone “101”, which (they say) will be answered by officers and staff in the control room of the local police force. If you want to draw attention to “general issues”, such as abandoned vehicles, rubbish dumping or dog fouling, “you should contact your local council”.

North Wales Police have acknowledged that “it can be hard to judge what is or is not an emergency”, but are at the same time concerned that many of the approximately 555,000 calls they receive annually are “inappropriate”. Among the cases they cite are a complaint about “a cold curry from a takeaway” and an appeal for “assistance to dislodge a sofa which had got stuck in a hallway”. Chief Inspector Sally Holmes of the West Midlands Police (WMP) has depicted (in the “Daily Telegraph”) as “ridiculous” 999 calls relating to “lost property, people asking for directions, a blocked sink plug in a hotel room, a computer user who’d forgotten his password and partygoers who’d been refused entry to a nightclub”. These are “timewasters”, she asserted, “who divert police resources away from genuine emergencies”.

The WMP have also had to deal with a customer who’d had problems getting served at a McDonalds restaurant, a learner-driver upset because his instructor had ordered him to get out of the car and a man who wanted the police to “come out and frighten his sister”. On the Devon & Cornwall Police’s list of odd requests was someone demanding they prosecute a Chinese takeaway “because his meal had been delivered 45 minutes late”. Indeed, takeaways appear to be a recurrent feature of 999 calls. Greater Manchester Police (GMP) were on one occasion phoned by a man angry that “mushrooms had been put on his pizza against his wishes”. In the same city, a woman insisted that the GMP should do something about the maggots in her rubbish bin.

The London Fire Brigade have found themselves confronted by equally bizarre scenarios. Included in their “Top Ten Weirdest Calls” are: “A woman agitated because she’d found a spider on her pillow; An elderly lady who heard dogs fighting outside her house, threw a glass of water at them, forgetting her false teeth were in the glass. She asked for help in retrieving her dentures; A caller who’d accidently dropped his phone down the toilet. It had disappeared round a bend in the pipe; A woman who was scared she’d be bitten by a fox in her garden because it had “a strange look” on its face”. The London Evening Standard journalist, Nick Hodgson, revealed (on 11th October 2013) that the LFB had been getting “around 100 unnecessary 999 calls a week” and quoted the advice of Senior LFB Officer Dave Brown that “If there’s an unexpected animal in your home, inform the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), don’t dial 999.”

This suggestion is likely to have substantially increased the workload of the animal protection charity “ to which (wrote columnist Adam Withnall in the “Independent” on 4th April) a call is made every four seconds”. In one recent case, he contended, the RSPCA were contacted by a householder “who was convinced they had a rat in their kitchen, which they thought was unwell as it hadn’t moved for some time”. When the Inspector arrived, “he discovered it was in fact an onion that had rolled out of the shopping bag onto the floor”.

Despite all these anecdotes, the public are not always at fault. The introduction of the new “non-emergency NHS (National Health Service) 111 telephone number” in April 2013 has resulted in considerable uncertainty and confusion. Should you ring 111 or 999: if a friend, relative or yourself becomes unwell? The assumption tends to be that calls to 111 will be taken less seriously and thus there’ll be a much slower response. As reported in The Independent, NHS chiefs have admitted that patients have felt “let down” by the 111 service, phone calls have gone unanswered and poor advice has been given by operators with no medical expertise.” Many paramedics – among them, staff at the South-East Coast Ambulance Service – are (according to the “Daily Telegraph”) strongly critical of the 111 system. Declared one of them: “Stupid enquiries get passed on to us. The people taking these calls aren’t medically trained and are afraid of making a mistake”.

Filed under: Healthcare, Society | Posted on August 27th, 2014 by Colin D Gordon

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