My desert-island, all-time, top ten most memorably rubbish, pointless and waste-of-time 999 calls, in no particular order.
1. “There’s a bee in my front room!” (Had it stung anyone? No. Was anyone there allergic to bees? No. It was a straightforward case of Bee In Front Room…)
2. “I’ve stubbed my toe!”
3. “I had a dream my friend has been shot. I tried to ring him but no-one answered. Can you go round and make sure he is okay?” (It was 2am, I’m not surprised no-one answered…)
4. “My cat has scratched me!”
5. “I’ve just got a new SIM card, and I don’t know the number. Could you tell me, please?”
6. “My boyfriend has a boil on his bottom and can’t sit down!” (What made this one worse was the fact that the caller kept ringing back every ten minutes bemoaning the fact we hadn’t sent an ambulance yet.)
7. “There’s a rat in my kitchen!”
8. “My child has stuck a pea up his nose!”
9. “I think I’m going to get an abscess in my mouth!” (He hadn’t actually got it yet… I guess he was thinking that prevention was better than cure!)
10. “I had an accident last week and was taken to hospital by ambulance. I’ve just been discharged, and there is blood all over the carpet. Could you come round and clean it up?”
That said, these are not the calls that really get my heckles up. When I joined the Nee Naw service, I knew that some people make wildly inappropriate 999 calls. They are relatively few and far between, and rarely cause much inconvenience — they are highly unlikely to get an ambulance sent to them, and often provide a source of amusement to a dispatcher who was about to doze off during the early morning lull. (It is, of course, less amusing at busy times when there are callers waiting to get through, and I am certainly not recommending anyone makes this kind of call for our amusement).
But the calls that really get my goat are not these, but the far more common variety of timewaster who think it is appropriate to call ambulances out for stomach aches, migraines, toothaches, flu and other minor ailments that are really the remit of GPs or pharmacists, or maybe even of the variety that can only be cured by retiring to bed, calling in sick and waiting for it to go away. I remember clearly as a child being taught to dial 999 and being told it was only for life and death emergencies. I wouldn’t have dreamed of calling an ambulance for flu or toothache, and I am reliably informed that 20 years ago no-one else did either. Yet nowadays, “ambulance” has become synonymous with “mobile medical treatment unit” or even “free taxi to the hospital”.
These calls aren’t rare, either. I would estimate that 75% of calls on nightshifts and 25% on dayshifts are of this nature. The ambulance service does not have unlimited resources, and attending these calls inevitably means longer ambulance waits. While we usually manage to get to the immediately life threatening calls (heart attacks, etc) within 8 minutes, response times for lesser emergencies are not as good. It’s not uncommon for old people to lie on the floor with broken bones for half an hour because we’ve no ambulance to send to them. And where are the ambulances? No, contrary to popular belief, they are not all parked up behind St Thomas’ A+E eating sandwiches… they’re all out dealing with kids with stomach aches and students with the flu.
Why does the ambulance service send out ambulances to these calls? Well, two reasons. The first is that some callers — especially those who do it habitually — know the “right” answers to the triage questions. They know that if you mention certain symptoms, an ambulance will come blazing on blues and twos, whereas if you tell the truth, you’ll get a call back from Telephone Advice. The second is something I’ve mentioned before — the ambulance service are running scared from being sued. While Telephone Advice can and do weed out some of the inappropriate calls by pointing out a GP or a taxi to A+E would be more appropriate, some people insist that they only want an ambulance. You can imagine the newspaper headlines that would result if that “stomachache” turned out to be appendicitis, and resulted in a burst appendix whilst the relatives were trying to persuade us to send an ambulance, and you can bet your life that the papers wouldn’t point out that the patient refused to consult a GP (who would have authorised an ambulance straightaway), or speculate about what would happen if we sent ambulances to every child with stomach ache.
I am scared of this too — I considered writing a piece on “When not to call 999″ which people would hopefully stumble across when googling for “should I call 999 for…” type queries, but was scared that I might put off someone experiencing a genuine emergency. Instead, I’m going to list the four symptoms for which you should always call 999 for an ambulance:
Chest pain (better to be safe than sorry with this one)
Severe difficulty in breathing (eg. unable to talk in full sentences, gasping for breath. It does not mean having a bit of a cough or gasping in pain!)
Reduction in consciousness (“A bit drunk” does not count; if the person can tell you what day it is and recognise their own family they are what us dispatchers would call “alert”)
Serious bleeding (ie. spurting or pouring, cannot be controlled with a cloth or dressing)
If none of these apply, think about whether you really need an ambulance. Needing an ambulance is not the same as needing medical treatment. Can the patient get to the hospital without an ambulance? (Not being able to afford a cab is not a good reason for an ambulance!) Do they need to go right now? (If not, a GP can organise a non-emergency ambulance for them). Remember that arriving by ambulance does not mean you will be seen any quicker. Ambulances do take the sickest patients straight in, but ordinary patients still have to wait in A+E (and if a critically ill patient arrives by car, they still get seen straight away too). If a patient has flu or a stomach bug, waiting in A+E for four hours will make them really uncomfortable — they’d probably be better off at home in bed, waiting for an emergency GP or drinking a cup of Lemsip! If in still in doubt, call your GP (the emergency GP number will be on their answer phone) or NHS Direct (0845 4647).
On the other hand, trust your instinct. If you think someone’s condition is life threatening, don’t hold back from calling 999 because you are worried you might be wasting someone’s time. The ambulance service can deal with the odd genuine false alarm, and no-one will be cross with you. Just don’t use the ambulance service as a taxi service or an alternative to your GP. Remember that while that ambulance is ferrying you and your toothache to the hospital, it’s not available to send out to someone who’s having a heart attack or lying on the floor with a broken hip. That person could be your gran…