The biggest time-wasting 999 calls: Citizens are grossly misusing their emergency services – and it’s costing human lives

Everyone should know that calling 999 to take your dog's temperature is not a valid emergency
  • @nashriggins

It appears as if general consensus amongst some of the British public has evolved to one based upon a selfish sense of personal entitlement – ‘I need help now, so I’ll call 999’.

In principle, this assertion is 100 per cent warranted; however, in practice, there are far too many 999 callers who have proven unable to discern an otherwise clear-cut difference between an emergency situation and a minor interruption to their daily lives.

In fact, last week Devon and Cornwall Police released a list of some of the biggest time-wasting calls they’d recently received – and the results were shocking to say the least. They included a member of the public who’d phoned emergency services to say they had run out of toilet roll, a person who was having difficulty ringing a Chinese takeaway, a request to take a dog's temperature and an individual whose electricity had gone out and wanted it ‘sorted’. Luckily, the majority of such calls get batted away by emergency services in order to keep lines free for those who are actually facing a life-or-death situation; however, this isn't always the case.

On Monday, three fire engine crews in Hertfordshire rushed to the rescue of what they thought was a drowning human person – or, at least the local emergency services had gotten that impression from the concerned 999 caller in question. Yet upon arrival, it turned out that there were no actual people in danger, but only a young grey squirrel. Rather than leave the job to the RSPCA, one of the specialist water crews – a team composed of five firefighters – justifiably stuck around to save the rodent, which involved two ladders and took around 15 minutes in total. The £6,000 rescue was successful, and the squirrel scurried off appreciatively.

On the one hand, said rescue was completely worthwhile, as the majority of fire services are committed to the rescue of animals in distress; however, if the 999 caller who’d phoned in the incident had made the circumstances of the emergency clearer, the animal’s rescue could have been prioritised accordingly.

Contrast Monday’s episode with the death of Simon Burgess on 10 March 2011 in Hampshire. The 41-year-old charity worker fell into three-foot deep water whilst feeding swans, and the firefighters who subsequently arrived on the scene 5-10 minutes later refused to try and save him – why? Because “health and safety” restricted them from walking through ankle-deep water, and only a specialist water crew was permitted to carry out such a rescue. Yet as fate would have it, the only specialist water crew available in the area was occupied at the time.

Everyone hates it when they run out of toilet roll – but even a child should be smart enough to know that it’s no reason to phone their local emergency services. Firefighters have a responsibility to their community in order to protect citizens in peril; however, it’s exceedingly difficult to do so when the cries of those in need are drowned out by the selfishness of those who want.

With any luck, local authorities will step up efforts to teach members of the community when it is and is not okay to phone for instant access to emergency services – because although there are plenty of squirrels in need of a decent rescue, there are people who might be left to die because of time-wasting 999 calls.