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CBS47 Special Report: 911 Abuse

A new policy is in effect in Fresno County and as of this month, those who abuse emergency medical services, like the ambulance and emergency room, will be cut off.
A new policy is in effect in Fresno County and as of this month, those who abuse emergency medical services, like the ambulance and emergency room, will be cut off.

No more free trips to the emergency room unless you are truly ill. The ambulance will no longer be allowed to be used like a taxi. It's a practice that's gotten so out of hand, that Fresno County is the first in the state to find a way to shut people out of the system they are abusing.

Many of us will never dial 911 or call for an ambulance, but for a handful of people in Fresno, it's a daily occurrence.

Dan Lynch is in charge of emergency medical services in Fresno County. Dan said, “The top three individuals are using the ambulance more than once a day… sometimes up to three times a day.”

Lynch is responsible from the time you dial 911 to the time you arrive at the hospital, so when someone abuses the system, it's his responsibility to deal to with it. More than 400 of those calls this year came from those three people.

One of those three is 41-year-old Cesar Arana. We tracked down Arana as he walked away from St. Agnes Medical Center in North Fresno. “I'm not trying to cause any hassle for the ambulance; I'm trying to get my life together,” said Arana.

Arana tells CBS47 he took the ambulance to the emergency room but he stayed less than 5 minutes. We asked why he would leave so quickly. “They gave me a hassle. I'm telling you the truth. Every time I go down there, they give me a hassle. I think they're jealous of the way I look,” said Arana.

Arana says he has cirrhosis of the liver from drinking and calls so much because he needs help, but as of Tuesday, Arana and another abuser of the system, were both cut off from using the ambulance.

Dan lynch said, “If they are sick and have an emergency event, we will take them to the hospital, but if they are not… they're not going to the hospital.”

Fresno County implemented the policy after repeated abuse of the system. Arana has been taken to the hospital by ambulance at least 145 times this year. Last year, he used it 710 times. Right behind him is Lonzell McPeters, who has called the ambulance at least 160 times this year and 653 times last year. Close behind them, is an unidentified woman who has taken the ambulance to the emergency room at least 107 times.

Each time an ambulance responds to one of those calls, they are unable to help people with legitimate medial problems, which put live in danger. “We don't have an ambulance on every street corner. So when an ambulance is busy dealing with one of these system abusers, the person two blocks away that's hit by a car or has chest pain, may have to wait an extra two minutes for the next closest ambulance,” said Lynch.

The abuse is very costly too. Each ambulance trip runs about $650, which adds up to $461,500 a year for Arana and $424,450 for McPeters. But they don’t pay for it… you do. The cost is passed on to everyone else who calls for an ambulance or goes to the hospital.

When the two top abusers call for an ambulance, they're usually pretty close to the hospital. They like to hang out just down the street, about two hundred yards away.

Fresno County records show that McPeters and Arana often call from a pay phone at Blackstone and Divisadero, near Community Regional Medical Center. They also call from Blackstone and Belmont, or First and Tulare, all within walking distance of the hospital.

They'll call for an ambulance. The ambulance will transport them to the facility and then the person will leave the emergency department, without being seen a lot of times, walk back to where they called the ambulance, and 45 minutes later call them again,” said Lynch.

It ties up 911 operators, the ambulance, and the hospital.
 
CBS47 spent the day with the Fresno Police Dispatch Center, where all the 911 in our area are answered. It’s a very busy call center and it’s against the law to abuse the emergency system. They do get lots of mistaken calls that are forgiven if they are truly accidental, but abuses can be prosecuted. Cesar Arana is under investigation by the Fresno police for allegedly abusing the 911 system.

The county is offering help. Arana said Fresno County offered to put him in a treatment program for alcohol abuse. “I was supposed to start it yesterday but I was too late because I got drunk and I didn't want to go in there drunk,” said Arana.

Arana is aware that Fresno County is cutting him off and he claims he's going to stop calling the ambulance just to get a ride. “I think it's a waste of time and somebody might be dying,” said Arana.

That's what Fresno County thinks as well. So Arana is out of luck, unless it's a true emergency.

While at dispatch, CBS47 was given possible lifesaving information when calling for an ambulance. Be prepared to provide an address and nearest intersection. This is especially crucial if you’re calling from a cell phone, because the nearest cell tower could be a mile away and emergency may not be able to find you in time. Also, if you let your children play with an old cell phone, remove the battery so they don't accidentally dial 911.

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