Close encounters with nosy neighbors
The Gladys Kravitzs of the world do exist — and people in fire and EMS get to deal with them frequently
If you are my age or older you might remember the television series, "Bewitched." The premise of the situation comedy involved a typical suburban stay-at-home soccer mom who just happened to be a witch and have magical powers. Across the street was the ultimate nosy neighbor, Gladys Kravitz. Mrs. Kravitz was always looking out the windows and asking questions.
Strangely, the Gladys Kravitzs of the world do exist – and people in fire and EMS get to deal with them frequently. As the driver of the fire apparatus, I usually remain with the vehicle so I get to see them regularly. In neighborhoods where it is not uncommon to hear gun shots when the windows are down, the arrival of an emergency vehicle is nothing out of the ordinary.
However, in upscale or middle class neighborhoods, the arrival of emergency vehicles cannot be ignored. Porch lights come on up and down the block and people exit homes and begin an impromptu evening wear fashion show.
This group is called different things; "The Oh My God Squad," "The Panic Posse," "Lookyloos" or perhaps the ever popular "throng of well-wishers." Normally these groups set up a staging area on the sidewalk or in an adjoining yard where they can view the action.
However, some just can't watch – they have to know what is going on. At some point they will drift over to me and ask what is going on. They don't have to know … they want to know.
On a fire response, I'll usually tell them the fire alarm went off. An EMS response is different, however. With all the patient privacy laws we are under now, I can't hold a press conference in the front yard and spout vital signs and a prognosis. I usually smile and say, "There is a medical emergency." Most people will let it go at that point.
But, some will attempt to gain more information with a few common approaches I have identified.
The Genuine Concern Approach
Their pat opening line is always the same: "Is there anything we can do? Bake a cake? Bake a pie? Make a macaroni and cheese casserole?" They will then launch into a lecture on how close they are to this person.
"I changed this person's diapers, I am their children's Godparent, and I am co-signed on their car loan!" All this in an attempt to convince me to tell them the inside scoop. But then they get to the point with, "What is going on?" I smile and tell them I have not been inside.
I had a lady tap on the glass one night and solemnly ask me, "Is it Mr. or Mrs?" I looked down and took a deep breathe and looked back at her. "Ma'am, it's both!" She shrieked and ran to report to the others.
The Innocent Question Approach
This person will appear and explain they have a question they have always wanted to ask but have never had the chance. A family member is moving to Australia and they were curious if a fire extinguisher from the United States would be effective on a grease fire on a different continent. I advise them to make contact with the fire authority having jurisdiction Down Under. Then the inevitable, "What is going on?" A smile and an explanation to say I have not been in the house.
On the scene one night, I got to witness a long time co-worker smoothly handle one of these situations. Sadly, he passed away from cancer a few years back. We were approached by an elderly female in orthopedic shoes who tottered over and asked us what was going on. Without hesitation my co-worker answered that there had been an axe murder. She sprinted back to her house faster than I could have. (I don't recommend this tactic for liability reasons.)
The 'I Am Important And You Can Tell Me Approach'
This type can be somewhat annoying. This person is usually a retired male and is president of the neighborhood crime watch or civic association. He is well known at city hall because he is there once a week to complain about some socially relevant problem in the city – there are too many pigeons in the bird bath at the park, for instance. He will usually begin with an impressive introduction: "I am B. G. Putterman. I live in the beige corner house. I have worked in the paint department at Sloptolds Hardware for 35 years. What is going on?" I, not being impressed, will ask something like, "Did Sloptold die?"
However, you can have fun with this person, especially if the police are on the scene, depending on what type of call is in progress. I will portray an image of being relieved. "Oh, thank God. You are Mr. Putterman? They need you inside. Go right in." He will march through the assembled multitude with his hands in the air and proclaim that he is going to get to the bottom of this. Moments later he will be escorted back to the front door by a policeman who is pointing the way out. Works every time and never gets old.
However, on a serious note, don't immediately disregard the Gladys Kravitzs of the world. They do have a role. I was rolling up hose one morning from a fire the night before – one of those shift-change-at-the-scene things that everybody hates.
The neighbor across the street came out in her blue moo-moo and fuzzy house shoes to get her morning paper. After gazing at the house with giant black circles around the now-glassless windows and a hole in the roof with steam still rising, she remarked, "Wow! That worked out well for the owner."
After gazing at the burned shell of a house myself for a minute, I put down the hose and strolled over to her. As Jeff Foxworthy might say, "You have my attention." How could this have possibly been good for somebody?
Gladys was happy to tell me about the moving van that was at the house the previous day and the movers who moved all the furniture out of the house. I summoned a fire investigator. He will want to talk to Gladys...
This article, originally published in January 2011, has been updated.