The Investigators

Nov 14, 2013 12:10 AM by Matthew Schwartz

N4T Investigators: Ambulance Abuse

TUCSON - Fire Station 8 is Tucson's busiest fire house, going on about 30 calls a day.

The News 4 Tucson Investigators rode along to some calls in a rescue truck, with Emergency Medical Technician Gary Sereno and Paramedic Dane Antrim.

We rode with them because we wanted to see first-hand how a few residents tie-up the city's emergency system and ambulance service, unintentionally or not, with non-emergencies.

One call for help came from a woman living in a midtown apartment. Her reason for dialing 9-1-1? She had a bloody nose.

Paramedic Antrim told us, "A call that's something very minor, like a nose bleed, that could typically be handled at home with just a napkin or something along those lines, it takes a truck out of service for more critical calls."

They treated the woman, who also felt nauseous, and she didn't insist that they call for an ambulance to take her to a hospital. That is too often the case.

The News 4 Tucson Investigators spent time in the city's communications center, which receives 600,000 calls a year. Officials say too much time and money are spent on non-emergencies. They say that every day six or seven people call 9-1-1 who really want to use an ambulance as a taxi cab to drop them off at a hospital, and then they go on personal errands.

Deputy Fire Chief Sharon McDonough told the News 4 Tucson Investigators, "It affects our availability to respond to your emergency when we're tied up on a separate non-emergency type call. We go to a lot of people who use up our resources and especially during this time when we're trying to manage our resources with shrinking budgets."

McDonough says ambulance rides cost an average of $1,100 a trip. If the person being transported doesn't have insurance or Medicare and can't pay, that money has to come from your tax dollars, or other city funds.

"We have some people who use us to simply as a means to get across town or to get to a hospital for a shower and a meal," McDonough says. "We also have the group who, they just don't know who else to call so they call us even though it's a non-emergency issue. Thirdly, we have a group who relies on EMS for their main medical care, rather than see a primary care physician.

Fire department responders don't turn down an ambulance request if the person being treated insists on it. They do try to educate them on how they can treat themselves in non-emergency situations.

McDonough said, "Unfortunately, if you called me and said you had chest pain, and I checked everything I could check, and it doesn't look like you're having chest pains, I still can't prove that you're not. And because there are so many potentials of the boy who cried wolf, we have to err on behalf of the safety of that patient and get them to the hospital. I would say the first thing to do is educate yourself, and to understand what an emergency is."

McDonough says some people honestly don't know when to call 9-1-1. Some of the main symptoms that should prompt a call:

·difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
·chest or upper abdominal pain or pressure
·sudden dizziness, weakness or change in vision

The fire department's web site has more information about when to call 9-1-1 and when to call your doctor. Here's the link:

As always, if you have a story you'd like us to investigate, please email us at, or call our tipline, at (520) 955-4444.


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