The "Blatantly Stupid" Call: No Joke to Overburdened EMS & Hospital Staffs

You might have been in the business for only a week, or even less, but odds are you’ve already been dispatched to the infamous “blatantly stupid†call. You know what I’m talking about. It’s 3 o’clock in the morning, you are in a sound sleep and the tones go off. You find yourself racing down the street, prepared to handle what could be the most challenging trauma call of your career.

But, alas, when you arrive on the scene, you find out it is not the call that is going to challenge you to muster every bit of knowledge, training, education and experience you have ever received as a paramedic to save someone’s life. It is the infamous “blatantly stupid†call. These calls are aggravating, mentally draining and extremely frustrating.

What is your most memorable such call? For me, it was the woman who called 911 because her child came home and told her that there was a computer virus at school. The mom, in a panic, was afraid her child had been exposed to some horrendous disease, so she called 911 to have her child taken to a hospital for evaluation.

I posed this question recently to some paramedics. I heard some amazing stories, but they were not surprising. How about a patient who called 911 and told the responding emergency personnel, “I had a runny nose, so I took some heroin, and now I have a headache.†Another story I heard involved a man who had suffered chest pain for 17 years, then called 911 one night because he started worrying when the pain stopped.

One paramedic said he notices a direct correlation between these calls and topics discussed on the Jerry Springer TV show. Other paramedics told me stories of getting emergency calls from people who could not stop burping, just needed a hug, had bleeding hangnails, could not unscrew a light bulb that needed to be changed or was bitten on the finger by a hamster. Still others recalled the patient who was pregnant and called 911 because she felt her baby move, the guy who scratched his back with a fingernail that was too long, a person with canker sores and a caller who complained that an ear hurt after a TV station ran a test pattern. One paramedic reported being dispatched to a clinic that called 911 late one afternoon to have the patients in its waiting room transported to a hospital by EMS. It seems the clinic closes at 5 P.M. and management didn’t want the staff to work late that night.

These calls usually fall into two categories – the acute and the delayed. Some patients call 911 immediately after something goes wrong, but the ones who really puzzle us are those who call after days or even weeks after an episode has occurred. Here’s an example: You respond to an emergency call at 2 A.M. As you arrive on the scene, you’re met at the door by someone with urine-stained underwear who tells you that he took four aspirin tablets and forgot that he was allergic to them. As you further question this person, you find out he took the aspirin about a week earlier and cannot even remember the exact day – but just now he remembered he took them, so he thought he’d better get checked out.

Of course, not all of the people who make these calls are at the lower end of the gene pool. Many have an ulterior motive. They believe that by calling 911 and taking an ambulance to an emergency room, they will be given priority in being seen at the hospital. For some reason, because they arrived by ambulance, they expect to be bumped ahead of all those poor souls in the emergency room who have been sitting there for hours waiting to be seen. Thankfully, most triage nurses in emergency rooms know the routine and sit these patients in the waiting room. The bad side of this is that some triage nurses will let you – the EMS crew – sit in the emergency room for hours with the patient on your stretcher because no hospital stretchers are available.

Some patients call us because they have no money for a taxi and they know they will not need any money up front for an ambulance ride. These are the people who have no intention of paying the bill or they have some form of taxpayer-funded medical insurance and do not worry about the bill.

Unfortunately, these calls are not going to go away anytime soon. A recent paper by the Institute of Medicine titled, “Future of Emergency Care Services, Emergency Medical Services at the Crossroads,†paints a bleak picture. One of the three reports contained within the document is called, “Hospital-based Emergency Care: At the Breaking Point.†The report explores the changing role of the hospital emergency department and describes the national epidemic of overcrowded emergency rooms and trauma centers.

So, the next time you get that 3 A.M. call from someone with hemorrhoids, remember this – if you tell your non-paramedic friends about it, they’ll swear you are making it up.

Gary Ludwig, MS, EMT-P, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a deputy fire chief with the Memphis, TN, Fire Department. He has 28 years of fire-rescue service experience, and previously served 25 years with the City of St. Louis, retiring as the chief paramedic from the St. Louis Fire Department. Ludwig is vice chairman of the EMS Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), has a master’s degree in business and management, and is a licensed paramedic. He is a frequent speaker at EMS and fire conferences nationally and internationally. He can be reached through his website at