When 911 came along I was assigned to the dispatch office and had to attend a 911 class. I'll never forget how a veteran dispatcher from Houston made the point to the instructor that what is an emergency to one person is not to another. Truer words have never been spoken.
Let's look at the word from a scientific standpoint. Here is one definition I found from Webster's: "An unforeseen occurrence or combination of circumstances which calls for immediate action or remedy; pressing necessity; exigency."
Two epic adventures come to mind. One of which happened just the other day. I was dispatched to a reported warehouse fire in an industrial port facility. I arrived and was led by a security vehicle through the complex, past ships and other things to a large building charged with smoke.
No parking zone
Now when I say large building this building was the size of Delaware. It was at least 300 yards long and I couldn't even see the other end of it. As a graduate of a smoke reading class a few years ago, I remembered that if you have smoke coming from a big box, you have a big fire.
I pulled my vehicle to the side of the building entrance as to not be in the way and was approached by a man in a hard hat and safety glasses. He informed me I could not park there!
My mind was somewhat filled with thoughts of pump relays from fire boats and things of that nature.
He repeated his statement and pointed to an area framed with 2 x 4s and rebar and explained that a concrete truck was on the way and I needed to move.
I must admit I became a little annoyed and I informed him that I would in fact park there and furthermore I invited him to retrieve a chair, sit down and watch me park there. In fact, there was about to be a lot more fire trucks that were also going to park there. I made it clear that we were the fire department and would park anywhere we wanted to when there was a fire.
He calmly shook his head and said there was not a fire. I asked about the large amount of smoke in the building. He went on to explain that it was not a real fire. There was a tank of some liquid that caught fire in the warehouse.
Oh don't I look silly. Here I thought we had a serious situation. It's just a tank of some type of flammable liquid burning in a building. No problem here. At this point I suggested the concrete king go sit on the dock and count passing barges.
Visiting for a spell
Years ago a pleasant middle-aged lady rang the doorbell at the station. She had a young child with her. When I first saw them I assumed the child wanted to look at the fire truck. I opened the door and after the introductions we talked to the young child about what school he attended and so forth.
At some point I offered to show the youngster the fire truck. His mother declined the offer citing a need to return to school. However, she then revealed the reason for her visit.
She began telling me of a street over the railroad tracks, near a field at the end of this street. I told her I knew the area. Well, there is a building on fire on that street.
I asked her if she was serious. She looked somewhat confused by my question and answered with an emphatic yes. We had been chit chatting for 5 minutes. This building being ablaze was really nothing to get worked up about in her mind.
So getting back to what is an emergency could this be upbringing? You take a lot of traits from your parents during your formative years. Perhaps this woman's home life consisted of "if it's not your house, don't worry about a fire."
Rub some dirt on it
For anybody who has ever ridden an ambulance, you know a vast amount of calls we go on are far from being an emergency. My mother never called an ambulance if I had an earache or I threw up, but people do.
If I had a fever she put me in the tub with cool water and gave me some aspirin to bring the fever down. If I didn't improve we went to the family doctor.
Now we are getting into social and economic problems. A lot of folks don't have a family doctor and the hospital emergency room is their family doctor. I understand that, but a lot of people do call 911 for their foot that has hurt for two weeks.
I have pretty much grown accustom to it now. I usually just chuckle.
Years ago my oldest son and I were playing catch with a baseball when the youngest son wandered into the path of the ball. It knocked him silly. I franticly carried him to the car and drove like a madman to the hospital because I was afraid of calling an ambulance needlessly. Fortunately, he was okay.
Maybe when we do the school thing we can incorporate the criteria for an emergency into the program. Now if you haven't had a bowel movement in 12 hours is this an emergency? No. If your wife refuses an invitation to have relations with you is this an emergency?
People have called for that, believe it or not.
Let me hear from you.
About the author
Will Wyatt, who is originally from New Orleans, has been in the fire service for 25 years. Will currently works as an engineer/operator at the Village Fire Department in the Houston, Texas, area. Will also works part time at another fire department and part time at a 911 emergency medical service. He has held numerous ranks with fire departments in the Houston area including full time training officer, fire marshal and deputy chief. Will holds a master fire fighter certification with the State of Texas, an instructor certification, pump operator certification, an associate degree from Houston Community College and a basic EMT certification. Recently will authored a book on the fire service entitled, "And a Paycheck, Too!" Check out an excerpt here. Contact Will at Will.Wyatt@firerescue1.com.
The comments below are member-generated and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of FireRescue1.com or its staff. If you cannot see comments, try disabling privacy and ad blocking plugins in your browser. All comments must comply with our Member Commenting Policy.
Smooth Bore TipMonday, January 27, 2014 3:34:31 PMThe internet isn't big enough to hold all these stories!
Mel MaguireMonday, January 27, 2014 3:56:30 PMHow 'bout calling 911 because your wife has had the sniffles for a couple of days, and you admit to calling 911 at the same time every year for the same thing and you just can't understand why the doctors discharge her so quickly without any prescriptions?
Michael B. HaggisMonday, January 27, 2014 8:36:54 PMWith three years as a FD/EMS dispatcher for a metro city, the best Ive heard is for a hangnail.
Ben SilenceTuesday, January 28, 2014 9:04:18 AMWe live in the Northern most tip of Minnesota, never fails when there is a foot of snow on the road and the wind is blowing 30mph we get a call because someone that has been sick for 3 days decides they now need to go to the doctor!
Tuesday, January 28, 2014 11:03:40 AMIn the 70's, all dispatch phone calls were forwarded to speakers in the volunteer resident quarters above our firehouse. This gave us a heads up to start moving to the trucks and a better "feel" for the severity of the 911 emergency that would be eventually toned out. One afternoon we heard... "911, what is your emergency?" The caller replied, "Is Billy there?". To which the dispatcher replied, "Madam, this is an emergency line, is this a REAL emergency?" There was a pause and then the caller stated emphatically, "OH YES!, is Billy there?" Of course, Billy was a volunteer resident who had recently met this young lady and obviously made an impression.