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.
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.