SACRAMENTO, CA - When you see a police car, an ambulance or a fire engine rolling down the road, somebody, somewhere needs help; it's usually a life or death situation.
Or is it?
911 tapes obtained by News10 show massive abuse of the emergency system.
In one tape, a man says, "I'm not reporting anything. I'm just trying to find out how do you use the cell phone in California if you're trying to get the operator?"
Sac Metro Fire Engine 111 Capt. Craig Henderson said more often than you'd think someone is calling 911 who shouldn't be.
"We've been on calls for patients who would like us to turn their thermostat up and down," Henderson said. "We've been on calls for patients who would like us to assist them in finding their remote, changing batteries in their remote or helping find their sunglasses."
The problem, for the fire department, is that when someone dials 911 for whatever reason, paramedics or firefighters have to respond, either in an ambulance, a fire engine or both.
"If someone calls 911, we are absolutely obligated to go to that residence," Henderson said.
Firefighter and paramedic Mike Bonham, one of the newest members to Sac Metro Fire, said he believes there is wide-spread abuse.
For instance, people using an ambulance as a taxi.
"And as we are clearing the hospital to leave, they are walking out of the hospital and I don't know where they're going," Bonham said. "It happens more often than you'd think."
Some people call so often, abusing 911 so frequently, Sacramento County's District Attorney has pressed charges.
The woman, who is technically a patient and therefore will not be identified, has called 300 times in the past 18 months; more than 100 times just this year.
"It's not really an emergency," she told a 911 dispatcher. "I just need somebody to help close an air vent so I can breathe right. You want the heater turned off or the air event closed? The air vent needs to be closed because it's right on me."
In another case, the woman called 911, from inside an ambulance because she wanted firefighters to wait at her apartment until her caregiver arrived later that night.
But Sac Metro is obviously just one department. Consider all the non-emergency calls the other stations go on, not to mention police officers and the wasted resources at emergency rooms.
Then there are the calls to 911 that just waste time, like this woman who called to get an address:
"Ma'm this is not an emergency," one caller said. "You're going to think I'm crazy."
"What's the problem?" the dispatcher asked.
"Well, I'm looking for an address. But I've got two different spellings. I've got one...," the caller said.
"Ma'm, ma'm. You are on a life or death emergency line," the dispatcher cut in.
"Oh, I'm sorry," the caller replied.
Another man called about grass:
"I'm just wanting to know, it's not an emergency, I'm just wanting to know why CalTrans hasn't mowed the grass in the center lane of the 15 freeway," the man asked
"Well, you can't call on 911 for that sir," the dispatcher replied.
"So, who do I call?" the man said.
"You're tying up a life or death emergency line," the dispatcher said.
Finally, a man called about an inside job burglary:
"Yeah, hi, is this 911?" asked a man.
"Yes it is," the dispatcher replied.
"Yeah listen, now if somebody comes in my house, my fiancée, and takes my TV and sells it while I went to get her some tacos. Now, can you get her busted for that?" the man asked.
Some of these 911 calls seem humorous, but first responders said you should consider them outrageous for a couple of reasons.
First, non-emergency calls cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to taxpayers. Second, when police officers, firefighters and paramedics are dealing with those types of calls, somebody else could really need the help.
"If another call comes down for, let's say a structure fire, a vehicle accident, a drowning, whatever the case may be, it's going to take (up to) six minutes on average for an engine to come from outside of the area," Henderson said.
Most important, Henderson said that isn't a hypothetical situation.
"This happens on a daily basis, [it] could mean the difference between life and death," Henderson said.
There is another extreme though, people who wait far too long to call 911; some even end up dying because of it.
Firefighters don't want anyone hesitating to call 911, just don't abuse what's meant to save a life.