Dispatchers in the Columbia County 911 Communications Center are ready and waiting to send emergency assistance to those in need.
The dispatchers fielded 47,395 calls to 911 in 2009, said Lt. Andy Shedd, the communications center supervisor, but many of those callers didn't need to dial 911.
"Well over ... 50 percent of our calls are of a non-emergency nature that still come to 911," Shedd said. "In the 911 system, we get a ton of them."
In addition to the emergencies reported, including fires, wrecks and medical problems, Shedd said, 911 callers report abandoned or disabled vehicles and after-the-fact crimes such as theft and vandalism. Many callers dial 911 seeking information about school closings or road construction, Shedd said.
Those non-emergency types of calls tie up 911 lines and are better suited for the non-emergency line, (706) 541-2800. Residents also can call Columbia County's information center by dialing 311.
"Don't get me wrong. We're going to respond in some way for all calls for service," Shedd said. "But we would prefer, obviously, that you use the 541-2800 number and free up the 911 line for the emergency call it is designed for."
He said he doesn't want to discourage residents from calling 911 if they believe they have an emergency. It is better to err on the side of caution and call 911 if it could be an emergency.
"Any kind of immediate emergency when you need help now, that's when you dial 911," Shedd said. "By no means are we saying don't call 911. By all means, if you need police, medical or fire assistance, call 911 immediately."
Shedd said his dispatchers do occasionally get calls from people asking for a turkey recipe, trying to date a dispatcher or some other outlandish reason.
The call center sometimes get repeated calls from someone who does not have an emergency. In those cases, the callers are warned not to call again unless it is an emergency. If the caller continues to call after being warned, he can be charged with making harassing phone calls.
Two callers were arrested in 2007 and in 2008 for abuse of the 911 line, Shedd said.
All 911 calls placed in Columbia County go to the call center, then are transferred to dispatch centers for Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue or the Grovetown or Harlem public safety departments.
Medical emergency calls are routed to the county's emergency medical service provider, Gold Cross Emergency Medical Service. Some areas of the country have reported problems with 911 being used to dispatch ambulances for people without insurance who then use ambulance crews as their primary medical provider, but that hasn't been a problem for Gold Cross, said Vince Brogdon, its operations manager.
Brogdon said ambulances responded to 6,890 people in 2009 who were taken to hospitals. Ambulance crews responded to more than 3,800 calls in which no one was taken to a medical facility.
Brogdon said those taking advantage of being treated and not transported is rare, even though patients receiving on-scene treatment usually are not charged.
Some 911 callers believe a ride in an ambulance will help them avoid a long wait at the emergency room, but that isn't necessarily the case.
"Just because they come in an ambulance doesn't mean they are going straight to a room," Brogdon said. "They get in line like anyone else. That's a big misconception."
Brogdon said that as with any emergency service provider, there are a few "frequent fliers," people who call regularly. He mentioned one alcoholic married couple who often call, with one reporting chest pains or shortness of breath.
"We know to take both of them to the hospital because as soon as we take one to the hospital, the other is going to call us about 10 minutes later," Brogdon said.
Ambulance crews are not going to ignore those kinds of calls or those better handled with a doctor visit instead of an ambulance ride, but such calls can occupy crews when they are needed for a true medical emergency.
"The person with the heart attack might have to wait a few minutes longer because that ambulance in that area is tied up with someone with flulike symptoms," Brogdon said. "We can't turn anybody down. We'll take anybody who calls."
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