The police have been complaining a lot lately about frivolous calls to the emergency services. All over the country people in their thousands are calling 999 for the weirdest or silliest reasons. In Gloucestershire one man called to say that his wife was a werewolf, and another that he was being poisoned by a satellite controlled by witches. In Scotland someone rang to complain about the service he had received at a hamburger joint; another to ask where he could buy some milk. The police have been publicising such incidents in the hope that we will stop wasting their time in this way, but it seems most unlikely that we will; for to call 999 is a spreading addiction. Not all the calls of which the police complain can be described as frivolous. Sometimes they refer to genuine emergencies, but ones that the police consider to have been avoidable. Why, they ask, should so many people need releasing from handcuffs? And why do so many get their hands stuck in letterboxes?
Given that it’s no fun ringing up a switchboard to face a series of questions about one’s name, address, postcode, purpose of call, etc., I wonder why so many people do it for no good reason. Maybe many of them are just lonely and call the one number that they expect to be answered promptly by somebody who won’t put them on hold and who will show some concern for their welfare. Others could be victims of the dependency culture who believe that the state has a duty to solve whatever problem they may have and who hold in their heads only one number to ring, which is 999. A few may also be among those who feel they have to draw the state’s attention to any misbehaviour by anybody else, such as the woman in Scotland who called 999 to report her mother for the use of drugs. (Asked how she knew, she said that she had collected them for her.)
For some years I employed someone in Northamptonshire as an odd-job man who seems in retrospect to have personified each of these last two types. When he had an argument with a colleague who mowed my lawn — an argument that led to some fairly harmless fisticuffs — he called the police to complain about him (even though they had previously got on well). When a lone mother living next door to him received a man as a visitor, he rang the authorities to say that she should not be receiving benefit (even though he himself was squeezing the benefit system for everything he could get). He was a nice man in many ways, but had exactly the kind of mindset that the Tory leadership deplores.
Britain is by no means the only country that has a problem with emergency-call abusers, but nobody knows what to do about it. Only in one extreme case have the authorities taken action, and this is in Washington DC where a 58-year-old woman called Martha Rigsby has been taken to court on account of her addiction. Since 1977, Rigsby has been calling 911 (the American equivalent of 999) with terrifying frequency to report a fall. In the past year alone, she has rung the number 226 times following a collapse and been taken to hospital 117 times. She is so well known to Washington’s emergency responders that they can recite her date of birth and social security number from memory.
The city’s ‘Department of Behavioral Health’ has petitioned a court to appoint a guardian to take charge of Rigsby’s health care on the grounds that she has ‘bipolar and borderline personality disorders and does not have the mental capacity to handle her medical affairs’, the Washington Post reports. Court papers say that for 30 years she has been the most frequent 911 user in the capital’s history, making thousands of emergency calls and trips to hospital after falling down. Her calls are said to follow the same general pattern — she feels faint and collapses, then either calls 911 herself or prompts others to do so by collapsing in the street in front of them. Expert witnesses have said they can find no medical reason for her falls.
A decision has now been postponed till January while doctors assess her mental condition. But it is doubtful what difference any decision will make. Even if she is appointed a guardian, there will still be nothing to prevent her calling the emergency services, which will continue, as required by law, to accept her as a patient.