Blue Byline

A cop's perspective of the news and South Sound matters

Nonemergent calls to police and fire are irritating but necessary

Post by Brian O'Neill on July 30, 2013 at 2:07 pm with 3 Comments »
July 30, 2013 9:23 pm

Scene: Mid-90s. Swing shift patrol. Northeast Tacoma. 

Action: Day 1 – Police officer drives around in circles for hours. No calls. He pulls into the fire station and eats his lunch with similarly bored firefighters. Goes home. Day 2 – Repeat.

While this scenario was largely true back in the day, it is no longer. Shrinking budgets and an increase in service calls keep most first responders hopping day and night. But hopping to what?

According to Adam Lynn’s excellent piece in Sunday’s TNT, many of those calls – at least for the Tacoma Fire Department – are far from an emergency.

Firefighter rescues a cat/ Courtesy
Firefighter rescues a cat/ Courtesy

Among the many calls that kept TFD firefighters scrambling in recent months include: a cat caught on a roof (it jumped down); a trooper locked out of his patrol car (he opened it himself); a stuck door (it wasn’t).

Firefighters are not the only ones to receive strange, even obnoxious requests from callers. I have been asked to help people move, to tell their child to eat his or her vegetables, to turn off the noise coming from the power lines, to pick up dog poop. Mostly, you do what you can and then move on.

It’s not surprising that frivolous calls like these can often be frustrating, even unpleasant for well trained first responders. I have listened to colleagues give lectures about wasting resources, a fair assessment given that a reported 3,000 “investigate only” calls came into TFD’s dispatch system in 2012 alone. Such a high number of nonemergent calls can skew the statistics which agency administrators depend on for staffing their departments.

But while these service calls may seem to be a complete waste of time, I would argue against that point.

For every irritating, ridiculous 911 complaint, I recall a like number in which the mere presence of a police officer (or firefighter) helped in some way. In some cases, the callers were confused or delusional, and the incident would transform into a medical assist. In others, the callers were unable to properly express their true needs, and a legitimate issue was discovered.

And then there was the case of the bedridden old lady who called 911 for a variety of reasons, though all of us who swung by realized her true problem was simple loneliness. There were, and are, many more like her.

Still a waste of money, though, right? Maybe, except that first responders are on duty anyway, and since nonemergent calls are always on the bottom of the priority list, a crime or fire will always come first.

Perhaps the best reason to respond to non-emergency calls is that it forces police officers and firefighters out of their vehicles and into people’s lives. Some of these folks just want the reassurance that someone, anyone, is looking out for them. And cops and firefighters need a reminder that people depend on them.

Until a better reason comes along, that’s good enough for me.

Leave a comment Comments → 3
  1. gowenray says:

    How right you are Mr. O’Neill. Today’s emergency responders in our communities are often glarmortized in TV drama as over-worked by shock and awe incidents that few will ever see in a career life-time.
    The other side of that story is their self-effacing view of becoming so necessary to the big-picture that they become indifferent for their pledge to protect and serve (or respond) to the every day needs of the least of those they serve.
    Our local community’s emergency responders would do well to remember they are the citizen’s link to a safe and respected society. Leave the attitude of professional arrogance to the federal agencies. After all, they’re merely codified regulators, not law-enforcement or public safety responders.

  2. nwcolorist2 says:

    Interesting perspective in this article.

    It makes sense that people who make questionable 911 calls have secondary motivations. The apartments in my previous neighborhood had fire trucks and aid cars out front most weekends. And it is valuable to get the public workers out into the community as much as possible.

    However,highly trained professionals should focus on their specialty. Maybe there’s a way to divert these secondary needs to a better venue.

    As far as that policeman out in Northeast Tacoma during the mid-90’s, he would have kept plenty busy in our old neighborhood.

  3. Brian O'Neill says:

    Unfortunately, there really is no arm of government that deals with smaller, nonemergent issues – none that make house calls, anyway. In reality, cops can and should stay on top of these types of calls, because that is how many true crimes, and real emergencies, are discovered.

    And that old policeman was a younger version of me, back in the day.

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