Serial callers

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Sandra Chapman/13 Investigates

Indianapolis - Help is just a phone call away. When residents dial 911 for ambulance service, crews must respond whether it's the first time to the address or more than a hundred.

But 13 Investigates uncovers a sick problem - abuse of the system. Investigator Sandra Chapman tracks down some of the city's serial callers and shows you why police are on the trail of a menace.

Every day, sirens blare in the distance across the city. Fire and ambulance dispatchers provide critical information as emergency medical technicians and paramedics maneuver through traffic and at times near misses.

"We're out responding on the street in a hurry," said Lt. Monty Hoyt, who works on the Medic 10 rescue squad at the Indianapolis Fire Department.

Their job is to provide a lifeline to anyone who calls 911 for a medical emergency.

"I know when to call to get help and when not to," one recent patient told 13 Investigates.

But a four-month long Eyewitness News investigation found a community of "serial callers" - chronic 911 dialers who want help fast. Why and how much they call is sometimes questionable.
In some cases the calls are downright criminal. There are mere specialists in false alarms like the man captured on this 911 call obtained by 13 Investigates.

Caller: "Please hurry; 2902 North Park. The house is on fire. Right now please hurry up."

Police Dispatcher: "Sir?" [The caller hangs up as the call is switched over.]

Fire and Ambulance Dispatcher: "Fire and Ambulance. What is your emergency?"

Police Dispatcher: "Fire this is police across the hall. I'm sorry."

Fire and Ambulance Dispatcher: "What's up?"

Police Dispatcher: "We're getting another bogus call. That stupid idiot is starting his stuff again."

Metro Police Lt. Scott Robinette understands the frustration. "There are a number of people who are doing this kind of crime. I'm talking about the people who are maliciously, intentionally harassing government first responders," he confirmed.

Callers who aren't sick

Another troubling issue: callers who aren't really sick.

Chuck Ford is Wishard's Emergency Preparedness Director.

"It would be nice if people only called for true emergencies," he said.

It's a well known and risky problem for EMTs on the city's front line response at Wishard and the fire department. And it's costing taxpayers millions.

Dr. Mike Olinger is the Medical Director for both Wishard and IFD's ambulance service describes one of the ploys of bogus callers.

"They want to get up by St. Vincent [Hospital]. So they call the ambulance for horrible belly pain. 'My doctor's at St. Vincent's.' They get taken up there. They sign out of the emergency room, walk out and go visit somebody up near St. Vincent's," he said likening the act to a free taxi-cab ride.

"That's truly abuse of the system," he added.

So who are the serial callers on the other end of the phone?

Emergency Director Ford said, "As far as individuals go, we don't keep those records. Anecdoctally we know because we hear the ambulances dispatched to the same locations," he conceded.

Medical privacy laws prevent the city and county from naming names, so 13 Investigates decided to crunch Wishard's 2008 dispatch numbers for Medics 5, 10, 11 and 20. The four medics handled thousands of calls.

We wanted to find city addresses with the highest medical runs in those areas.

"We call them B.S. Runs, for basic service," explained Dr. Olinger.

Chronic callers

Hundreds of calls went to apartment buildings, nursing homes and other residential housing units including 41 visits to a North Illinois Street address. It's a boarding house for Midtown Mental Health clients.

According to Dr. Olinger, "We see people who have psychiatric illnesses, that believe they are sick," he said.

13 Investigates broke it down more to single family homes and found three of the city's top chronic callers, starting at an Olney Street address on the east side.

Behind the door of the home, a 70-year-old resident confirmed all 45 calls last year to this residence were for her.

Just over two miles away in a small apartment on 21st Street we found Timothy, a regular for Medic 20.

"They know me by my name," he proudly told 13 Investigates. "It's kind of exciting in a way to get help on the way," he said.

Based on our numbers, Timothy Rabbit had a very exciting year. We asked him how many times he thought he called an ambulance in 2008.

"Oh, wow, I'd say at least 20-times," he responded. He called for chest pains, diabetic issues, and for just being plain old sick.

"You had 40 runs here last year," we informed him.

"Are you serious?," he asked shaking his head in disbelief. "That's a lot," he admitted.

A lot for a man who's suffered five heart attacks and who's daily survival rests in 14 bottles of pills.

According to Wishard, each ambulance transport cost between $400 and $1,000.

In 2008, Wishard Health Services billed $30 million in ambulance runs. But it's only collected $6 million. Whatever they don't collect is simply written off.

At another location, Eyewitness News showed another chronic caller a history of runs to her address. Marcia Hendrix isn't surprised we showed up at her door. She had 30 ambulance runs in 2008. She suffers from Chronic Obstructive Airways Disease known as COPD and emphysema.

"How often do you call them?" Chapman asked.

"Sometimes three times a week, sometimes once a week," said Hendrix unapologetically. "Whenever I need them I have to call them. I need it too much to abuse them," she said.

But the city's number one caller is not even a patient.

Investigators say he's a menace who calls fire and ambulance for the thrill.  IMPD is trying find who's behind the voice captured on numerous 911 calls.

On January 6th of this year, he made this call:

"Send a fire truck to 2902 North Park, my mother and father, sister and brother are trapped in the house and the house is on fire," he says before abruptly hanging up.

"It's urgent and also he's calling in an entrapment," explained Robinett who says such a call would cause a ramped up response.

"Anytime you have all those apparatus going lights and sirens through the city you put people at risk," added Dr. Olinger.

"I will catch you," promised Robinett, speaking of the bogus caller.

Robinett, an arson investigator was successful in tracking down Rickey Jones, another serial caller who spent years taunting emergency responders.

Jones is now serving a three-year prison sentence for false reporting. It's estimated he cost the city a million dollars for runs to nowhere.

"The silent majority are paying for it," said Robinett, referring to the portion of the Marion County tax bill that pay for the city's emergency response systems.

And now it appears the city is on the hook for more.

The caller whose voice is captured on tape is targeting a neighborhood near 29th and Park.
In January he dialed 911 for bogus fire and ambulance runs 39 times in a single day. He created more than a hundred false runs in November and December.

"I know that he called 121 times in those 2-months," said Robinett with disgust. "Each time when the little boy calls, cries wolf, we have to go."

"It's a nuisance," said patient Timothy Rabbitt, who says he wouldn't know what to do if the ambulance service wasn't available for him.

"I think it's wrong," added Marcia Hendrix, who says she has no other way to get to the hospital for increased oxygen.

With their lives and others on the line, they can only hope a prank or bogus caller isn't tying up help when it's needed most.

To report a bogus caller, call Crime Stoppers at 262-TIPS. You could earn a cash reward of $1,000 for information that leads to an arrest.

By the numbers:

566  Ambulance runs by IFD 2008 - (Former Warren and Washington Township areas)
75 Patients with over five fire rescue responses
11 Patients who accounted for 182 runs. One of those patients had 37 runs
75 Runs from January through March 2009
14 Patients with four runs or more
3 Patients account for 21 of the runs (An average of seven runs in a 3-month period)

IFD Ambulance Billing 2008
$3.3 million Billed
$2.51 million Collected

Data provided by: Division Chief of EMS, Indianapolis Fire Department (Numbers represent areas of transport from the former Warren and Washington Township EMS District)

Wishard Ambulance Billing Reimbursements:
$30 million Billed in 2008
$6 million Collected
Percentage of $6 million reimbursement source:
52% Medicare (tax dollars)
22% Medicaid (tax dollars)
18 % Commercial (insurance)
8 % Other