When the preposterous becomes reality

Nonemergency calls that may not warrant a response can generate a great deal of bad publicity

Yesterday, as part of our April Fools' Day tradition, we ran a series of spoof articles. The intent was to amuse rather than to fool or dupe.

To create these spoof articles, we took situations very real to the fire service and exaggerated them to the point of being preposterous. One such article poked fun at federal bureaucracy by having the government repossess equipment bought with grants only to hand out grant money to repurchase it.

Another article dealt with a rash of cat skeletons in trees because fire departments no longer had the funds to rescue them when they got trapped.

It was a pretty safe bet, I assumed, that most everyone would quickly get the joke and have a chuckle. Really, who has ever seen a cat skeleton in a tree?

And then came this story out of Tampa, Fla. A cat had gotten itself stuck 35 feet up a palm tree. It resisted all normal attempts at coaxing it down.

The cat's self-appointed savior called the fire department. But Tampa Fire and the county fire department told him and the news reporter that they do not do cat rescues.

Really, who has ever seen a cat skeleton in a tree?

After engaging the Facebook machine, the man wanting to save the cat came upon someone willing to pay a tree trimmer to remove the cat. Thus we'll never know if the cat would have come down on its own.

Here is where it gets complicated. The fire department in neighboring St. Petersburg does rescue cats. Other nearby departments leave it to the discretion of the crew as to the level of danger involved in the rescue.

It is said that there is always a little truth in every joke. And here, the truth is that each department needs to determine how it will handle the nonemergency "cat in a tree" calls.

A couple of benefits to responding to these calls are good public relations — and avoiding the bad public relations of not doing it — and using the event as a training exercise.

The negatives are resource allocation and the inherent risk that offers little reward. I wouldn't want to be the person explaining why response time to a structure fire was delayed five minutes because a crew was plucking Mr. Mittens from a tree.

There are no easy answers because good public relations can lead to a better-equipped fire department. But in dire economic times, tough decisions have to be made about the level of service offered.

To some degree it is like something out of Catch-22: You can't get the good PR from nonemergency services because you don't have the money, and you can't get the money because you don't have the good PR from nonemergency services.

Ultimately, officers will have to establish nonemergency protocols based on their available resources. They must do what is best for the protection of the community.

But I by no means hold the answers. Please share how you and your department handle — or should handle — those "cat up a tree" types of calls.

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