DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. - Channel 2 is investigating false alarms and unnecessary 911 calls that are tying up firefighters who could be needed elsewhere.
It's a problem in many communities, including DeKalb County, where the fire chief says they're seeing an increase in unnecessary emergency calls.
It’s gotten to a point that when firefighters get dispatched, they don't always need directions, they know the way by heart because they've been to that address numerous times already.
Every time they get the call for help, they have to respond, even if they know more than likely it's not a real emergency.
“We have to respond to a call,” DeKalb County Fire Chief Darnell Fullum said.
He told Channel 2’s Sophia Choi that applies even if the crew believes an emergency response is not needed.
“We cannot take a chance of not responding to a call because that may be the true emergency,” he said.
Choi rode along with Dekalb County Fire Company 3 for a shift and it didn’t take long before they were dispatched to the Kenridge Apartments in Decatur. Capt. Russell Reagan told Choi they’ve been there a significant number of times, almost always responding to calls made by the same disabled resident.
“If she needs to go to the doctor’s office or she goes to a friend’s house, or grocery shopping or whatever. Whenever she needs to leave her apartment, she gives us a call,” Reagan said.
On this occasion, she called for assistance getting into her second-floor apartment.
Through an open records request Channel 2 found that woman has called 911 nearly 150 times in 2018 alone. Some of the calls for help include a headache or back pain. Channel 2 counted 46 calls for assistance.
Neighbor Juanuta Daniels told Choi some days firetrucks are at the complex three or four times.
“I do see them coming all the time, throughout the nights 3 o’clock in the morning, sometimes 4 o’clock,” Daniels said.
Capt. Dion Bentley told Channel 2 while crews are needed, it may not be an emergency.
“We do get calls that may not be classified by some as 911, but our job is to respond to everything that we are dispatched to and to fill the gaps on certain calls where it may not actually be a true emergency, but it’s an emergency to that person,” Bentley said.
That same day, Company 3 was dispatched to Avondale Forest Apartments in Decatur for a report of a possible fire. Crews responded to calls from the complex more than 190 times in 2017. Fourteen of those were for false alarms. Reagan told Channel 2 despite those false alarms, calls to the complex are not taken lightly.
“This is an older building. It may have some wiring issues in some of the apartments, so when we get a dispatch here, especially with a burning smell, we take the call very seriously and we try to get here as quick as we can,” Reagan said.
The call Choi went on was resolved in 15 minutes with no flames. It was a different story on Jan. 3, when crews responded to a fire at the complex. Intense flames forced residents to throw their children from the second floor. Firefighters were there to catch them.
Choi asked Fullum what these unnecessary calls cost taxpayers. He said while gas and wear and tear on the trucks do have a cost, the real price tag is lives put in jeopardy when crews are tied up where they are not truly needed.
DeKalb isn’t the only county that deals with these types of calls. Last January, Cobb County issued a warrant for a 62-year-old man who called for emergency assistance 118 times over three years. Some of the calls were for help getting his remote from another room.
Bentley told Choi that DeKalb 911 gets those calls as well. Bentley said crews do their best to educate the callers when they arrive at the scene.
“We’ll give them alternatives instead of calling 911 if we get there and we deem that this is not an emergency,” Bentley said.
Fullum said calling a family member, social services or 311 are all options for help in nonemergency situations.
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