But, what happens when that service is abused? It's happening more and more and at what cost? Hundreds of calls come through dispatch centers every day. About a third are actual emergencies.
"Every time you see a fire truck, an ambulance, a police car responding somewhere, that started with a call to 911."
But, it's not always necessary.
"Definitely there are some people that abuse it. They use it for a ride downtown or because they like one hospital over another."
In McLean County, the monitored number of unnecessary calls over a few months, totaled more than 500.
"It was intense. There were several clients that would call 911 on an average of 7 - 30 times a month."
That translates to hundreds of dollars every time an ambulance is dispatched. Emergency agencies aren't able to recoup the cost of a non-emergency call because they can't justify it to Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance.
That falls on taxpayers and it all adds up to one big resource drain. But, the misuse can come at a much higher costs.
"Life or death cases are sometimes impacted by longer response times."
Taking away from a true emergency.
"The biggest response is in cardiac arrest. Every minute is ten-percent, essentially, of their life being decreased."
In many cases, we found people calling too much for maintenance medical problems like treatments and blood pressure checks.
"More people don't have primary care physicians, more people are just not in tune with the healthcare system, so they turn to 911 because that's their last resort."
To combat the problem, McLean County is using a patient navigator. It's a position hired with funds from a grant to help lower the number of non-emergency 911 calls.
They find out who's calling when it's not warranted, connecting them to resources they need. In eleven months, they've helped 89 people who abused the system.
Unnecessary calls have dropped, saving the county and taxpayers $318,000, and saved EMS from a lot of strain.
"People want the help. They just don't know how to get it. That's the one thing I've found, doing this job. People aren't calling 911 inappropriately. It's their last line of defense, if they have no one else."
That's the message emergency responders want to stick, know the service is there for them, know when to call, but also know your options.
Experts say calls to regular healthcare can eliminate some calls to 911. They add, a primary care physician can help you manage problems before they get out of hand. But, if your situation requires immediate response, call 911.
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