From tight shoes to spicy chips — How low priority 911 calls tie up Cleveland ambulances

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CLEVELAND (WJW) – The FOX 8 I-Team has found people calling for an ambulance in Cleveland because they can’t sleep or their shoes are too tight.

Still, paramedics get sent.

So, the I-Team investigated what this means for you when you have a life-threatening emergency. We’ve recently exposed delays as people had to wait for an ambulance in Cleveland even with patients dying.

We uncovered 911 calls that are not what you expect to hear when people say they need an ambulance.

A recording showed one person dialed 911 and said, “My shoes is too small and they hurt my feet and I can’t walk.”

A woman called for an ambulance after eating a really hot chip for a snack.

“I bit the chip and my mouth is burning, and I don’t know what to do.”

A dispatcher answered, “OK, your mouth is burning?”

The caller then said, “Yes, they’re saying it’s the world’s hottest chip.”

On another recording, a dispatcher asked the caller if he actually had a medical emergency.

“Are you having an earache right now? Is that what you’re saying?” the dispatcher said.

“My ears need cleaned a little,” the caller replied.

Again, the I-Team has exposed chronic delays with Cleveland EMS. Ambulances shut down day-after-day due to short staffing has left people waiting in critical emergencies.

Now, our investigation puts a spotlight on how many low-priority calls tie up city ambulances.

One woman called the emergency line saying, “It’s not actually an emergency, but it is to me. I’m having trouble sleeping.”

On another recording, you hear a dispatcher ask a man, “Why do you need to go to the hospital?”

He answered, “I stayed up for four days.”

We’ve found the 911 center taking calls again and again for some people who abuse the system.

A 9-1-1 caller said, “There’s a lady here at the store. I’m an assistant manager here.”

A dispatcher interrupted to ask, “Still awake, right now?”

The caller then said, “Yep, she’s fine. Just sitting at the front of the store.”

The dispatcher then said, “You say she does this every week?”

The caller responded with, “We’ll call her a cab or something. The cab will tell her that they can’t pick her up. She’ll ask us to call medical, and per our company policy, we have to call you guys.”

For days, the mayor’s office ignored requests from the I-Team to talk to someone on camera about issues with Cleveland EMS.

In the past, the city has pointed out that EMS sends ambulances to the most serious calls first.
However, if paramedics are handling a call for someone who can’t sleep, they can’t answer your call for an emergency.

The city sends an ambulance to virtually every call with very few exceptions.

For this story, we listened to dozens of calls. We never heard a dispatcher tell anyone EMS would not be coming.

Records show, last year, Cleveland EMS took nearly 20,000 calls considered in the category of lowest priority.

For all of last year and so far this year, we found those cases making up nearly a third of all 911 calls to Cleveland EMS.

Another call shows Lutheran Hospital calling EMS for someone who’d just been told to leave.

The caller says, “We need EMS by Lutheran Hospital. We had officers out with a female. We kicked her out, and now she’s laying on the sidewalk saying her full body hurts.”

We spoke to Dr. Carol Cunningham, Medical Director for the Ohio Department of Public Safety.

“It’s not isolated to Cleveland. Every community has calls like this,” she said.

Dr. Cunningham pointed out that many people call EMS because they have no way to get to a doctor or they don’t have a family doctor.

However, Dr. Cunningham said federal agencies are doing a national study to figure out a way to handle these calls without sending an ambulance to every one. For instance, maybe having some other service sent to them or giving them some other place to call.

“We need to develop a model that partners with dispatch as well as EMS to appropriately manage these patients and get them the resources that they need without transporting them to the hospital,” Dr. Cunningham said.

For now, though, Cleveland EMS runs on calls while chronically short-staffed, and sometimes dispatchers even wonder why a person has called 911.

The I-Team tried contacting some of the people who made the calls in this story, but we had no luck reaching them.

All of these low priority calls didn’t just start coming in, but the strain on the system is taking on more importance now with the city short on ambulances.

Meanwhile, that national study on how to fix the problem is a long way from being finished.

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