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‘We call them drive-by 911 calls’: How well-meaning citizens can send first responders on a wild goose chase.

A Fire truck races to the scene of an emergency
A fire truck races to the scene of an emergency - -File photo

Last year, the Alma, N.S., fire department responded to 40 vehicle-related incidents, but only 25 of those actually required an emergency response.

So, what happened on those extra 15 calls?

“Sometimes people will call 911 if there’s just a car on the side of the road,” said Susan James, with the Alma Fire Department.

“Well that person might only need a tow truck. So, then we get called out and we’re looking for something that might not even be there.”

“There was one we had about a few months back,” said Alma fire Chief Roger MacLeod. “The tow truck operator just happened to hear us on the radio. He called dispatch and said that the car we were looking for was already on the back of his truck.”

“We get calls like that all the time,” said Thorburn, N.S., fire Chief Peter Fraser. “A motor-vehicle accident that ends up being someone putting windshield wiper fluid in their car or something.”

You can hear stories like these by talking with fire crews from any station in the county. What happens is people call 911 without stopping to check if 911 is actually needed. Without having enough information to go by, the dispatcher has little choice but to send out crews in response. Better safe than sorry.

“We get calls like that all the time. A motor-vehicle accident that ends up being someone putting windshield wiper fluid in their car or something.” — Thorburn, N.S., fire Chief Peter Fraser

“This is the problem with all the unknowns,” said MacLeod during a phone interview. “Every agency has to respond because you don’t know what you have.”

That means the responding fire department gets joined by RCMP and EHS.

With the Alma Fire Department alone, there were 15 times in 2018 when those three agencies were called-out in response to non-emergencies.

“What you’ve done is you’ve called all these recourses out for basically nothing,” said New Glasgow Fire Department chief Doug Dort. “We call them drive-by 911 calls.”

New Glasgow Fire Department responded to more than 10 of these drive-by 911 calls in 2018. Not only does it take emergency responders away from real potential emergencies, these false alarms also carry a price tag.

According to Dort, every time a single fire truck with a crew of six people is called out to respond to a situation, it costs $350.

“This is costing money for people. It’s taking volunteer departments away from their jobs, or their families or whatever they happen to have doing, for nothing,” said Dort.

So, what can people do?

“Stop. If you’re not comfortable getting out, stop and look at the scene and explain what you see to the 9/11 dispatcher,” said Dort.

Five things to tell the dispatcher

  • Where is the vehicle?
  • Has it rolled over?
  • Has it impacted anything like guard rails, bridge abutments, other vehicles?
  • How many people can you see?
  • Are people in the vehicle or out of the vehicle?

Citizens are not required to remain at the scene, but staying long enough to relay useful information can make a big difference.

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