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‘The system isn’t Uber': Calif. officials say 911 abuse rivals calls during pandemic

Officials in Kern County say over 40% of their calls are bogus or don’t warrant a response

By John Donegan
The Bakersfield Californian

KERN COUNTY, Calif. — Facilities of the 911 emergency system are being drowned in a flood of trivial calls, officials said at a news conference Monday.

Held at Kern County Public Health’s Mt. Vernon Avenue headquarters in Bakersfield, leaders from the 911 system continuum — from firefighters to dispatchers to medical workers — urged the public not to dial 911 unless there is a genuine emergency.

The call to “not call” came as authorities are seeing a steady rise in 911 reports — about a third more since 2019 and a slight bump from the year prior. As of Monday, EMS Program Manager Jeff Fariss with Kern Public Health said the county expects to exceed 13,000 911 calls for the month of June.

“That exceeds any month during the pandemic,” Fariss said.

More than 40% of those incoming calls, however, prove to be bogus and don’t merit a response. These are calls about a cough, a headache or other non-emergency best solved at home or at your local doctor’s office, officials said.


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This comes at the detriment of callers trying to report serious crimes or victims of heart attack, stroke or other life-threatening conditions who are forced to wait before their query can get through.

It’s a frustration felt among the rank-and-file dispatchers who answer half a million calls each year — which averages to nearly one every minute every day. The frustration, officials said, lies in not knowing which will prove to save a life or hinder another.

Kern County Fire Department spokesman Andrew Freeborn and others believe the issue, at its core, is a cultural one, spurred by isolationism that worsened during the pandemic. COVID-19 also revealed a misunderstanding with what role first responders play in people’s everyday lives.

“We see a lot of people that are by themselves that don’t have that caretaker there,” Freeborn said. “And instead of calling that caretaker to say they don’t feel well, instead of bothering a friend or family member, they’ll just burden the 911 system for something that’s not a true emergency. Now, we just see a lot of people throwing up their hands and saying, ‘I don’t feel well, I guess I’ll just call 911.’”

Asked for an example, Freeborn recalled a 911 call they received from a woman who, upon running vitals, simply wanted a free ride to Santa Clarita.

“And I said, ‘but we’re in Bakersfield,’” Freeborn recalled. “And they said, ‘yeah, but I’m coming from Northern California, I’m trying to get down to San Diego… The system isn’t Uber.”

For non-emergencies, Kern Public Health Director Brynn Carrigan urged people to see their primary care doctor.

It’s also vital, she added, to prioritize preventive care such as annual exams and check-ups that, in tandem with a healthy diet and exercise, can reduce the reliance on first responders.

And the irony is that an ambulance ride rarely guarantees priority in hospital care. Unless someone is dying, many — more than a third in Kern County — who arrive by ambulance often have to wait with everyone else.


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“We all know injuries and medical issues can be overwhelming and frightening,” Fariss said. “But we also want to ensure that we are responsibly using our 911 services.”

(c)2024 The Bakersfield Californian (Bakersfield, Calif.)
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