It's that time of year again. Britain's emergency services are issuing press releases about the time-wasting calls they have to deal with on a regular basis, South Central Ambulance Service among them:
In the past three months, call centre staff have dealt with a call from a young woman who had a headache after a night out, a man who wanted paramedics to treat his dog's injured leg and a man reporting that a hedgehog had been run over.
On New Year's Eve, a drunk man called for help to get up the stairs to his house.
A combination of excess alcohol, ubiquitous mobile phones and, in many cases, the cognitive skills of a crustacean has meant a perfect storm of this kind of thing; a large percentage of calls on Friday and Saturday nights, according to paramedics, are from people too drunk to get home.
It's an unfortunate combination, and one we've seen at work with the RNLI; an emergency response organisation with no alternative but to take each call seriously is forever at the beck and call of the thoughtless (not to mention intoxicated), who can summon assistance at the touch of a button on phones that may well, in some cases, be smarter than their owners (as described by the indefatigable JuliaM).
The quotes above are from a local paper's version of the story; there are similar pieces appearing around the country. What caught my eye with this one, however, is that the reporter includes not only the cost to the taxpayer of each call-out (£257, if you were wondering) but a memorable quote from an ambulance service spokesman:
"SCAS does not bill timewasters. That is not the NHS ethos."
It goes further than that, however; the ethos appears to be that no restitution of any kind is called for. Since it would be impossible - and expensive - to assess each case on merit, only persistent offenders are punished, while ambulance crews and paramedics are repeatedly diverted from their real purpose.
Now, I'm sure some of these calls are from people who genuinely do not understand the priorities involved - 'care in the community' has left many unfortunate souls struggling with the complexities of modern life - but it seems over-generous for us to foot the bill when a wobbly inebriate fancies a lift home.
There is an encouraging and heartwarming trend for those who have been plucked to safety by the RNLI to engage in subsequent fund-raising activities for the charity. There's no bill, no costly legal involvement, no compulsion; it's what you might well call an ethos.
The NHS ambulance service may not have the same need to raise cash, but wouldn't it be a fine thing if those time-wasters could be induced to do something in return?
1 hour ago