Nonemergency runs are serious business

They make for great stories and an occasional laugh, but those using fire and EMS for nonemergencies hurt our bottom line and ability to serve

Part of what makes humor humorous is the grains of truth that run through it. And in today's column by Will Wyatt, there is a whole silo of those grains.

Will has a bit of fun with some of the more outrageous experiences he's had with civilians' reactions to emergencies. In the process, he touches on our collective view of when an ambulance, or other emergency services, should be called.

Will isn't the first to light on this topic. Just last week Chief Adam Thiel reflected on why an ambulance was called when he was a child versus why one is called now.

I've seen it on the small department where I serve and have heard it from countless firefighters I've talked with.

We're not talking about the frequent flyers; that's a separate issue. We're talking about everything from the far out — like Will's example of the man who phoned because his wife refused his sexual advances — to the all-too common minor injuries and illnesses.

Like Will and Adam, I don't recall seeing many ambulances in the neighborhood of my youth or my family having to call one. Part of that is just good fortune. And part of it is an attitude that ambulances are for life-or-death situations.

So what changed? We all know that it is not a generation thing; the kooky and unwarranted calls are coming from those of all ages.

It's also not a phenomenon fenced in by U.S. borders. In 2011, researchers in the United Kingdom looked at this problem. They discovered that as many as 52 percent of U.K. ambulance calls were unnecessary.

They also conducted their own small survey on when to and not to call an ambulance. The group surveyed was likely more medically educated than the general public and yet still did poorly on the survey — 16 percent would call an ambulance for a toddler who bumped his head hard was one example.

One solution would be mixing disincentives — like additional fees for nonemergency calls to 911 — and a robust public education campaign. Be it "Stop, Drop and Roll" or compressions-only CPR, public education can and has worked in the emergency sector.

Sorting out what messages will work and how this all gets funded is well beyond my pay grade. But it would seem a national campaign would deliver a consistent message for less money than would 50 or so individual state campaigns.

One thing is certain, if we don't shift the culture and mindset back to calling 911 for emergencies only, we will continue to see the cost of operating fire and EMS departments soar and valuable resources kept from servicing real emergencies.

Perhaps even the amorous, frustrated husband would see that picking up some flowers for the missus is more effective than picking up the phone and dialing 911. 

About the author

Rick Markley is editor-in-chief of FireRescue1 and Fire Chief, a volunteer firefighter and fire investigator. He serves on the board of directors of and is actively involved with the International Fire Relief Mission, a humanitarian aid organization that delivers unused fire and EMS equipment to firefighters in developing countries. He holds a bachelor's degree in communications and a master's of fine arts. He has logged more than 10 years as an editor-in-chief and written numerous articles on firefighting. He can be reached at

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