My partner kills the siren as we enter the residential neighborhood – it’s a courtesy to people trying to sleep. No reason to wake the entire neighborhood as long as we can drive safely. He still chirps the siren as we go through intersections, but that’s much better than having it on all the time.
The strobe lights, on the other hand, continue to blaze along our drive. It’s almost midnight so we need the visibility that they provide. The strobes also reveal the realities of this neighborhood – bars on the windows, graffiti on the fences, and dogs that bark at our passing. This neighborhood may have been nice forty years ago but these days it’s deep in the hood.
We finally spot the BRT (big red truck) down the street parked in front of a house. We are responding to a “Medical Alarm: Unknown.” That’s what our dispatcher calls it when an elderly person pushes their medical alarm and the monitoring agency calls 911 for them. I still remember the commercial in the eighties with the little old lady lying on the ground saying “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” It became a cliché saying back then but the high frequency on calls just like that have earned it an honored place in the abbreviated shorthand of EMS communication: LOLFDGB – little old lady fall down go boom.
Pulling in behind the BRT my partner and I exit the rig and find the lieutenant (LT). I’ve seen him now and again while working this urban county so we have a cordial familiarity. I also know a few of the guys on his crew, most of whom are young as this is deep in the hood. The old timers can bid to the “vacation stations” in the more affluent neighborhoods because of their seniority. Lacking seniority the younger guys are left with the crap shifts in the bad neighborhoods. They get worked pretty hard – sometimes 20+ calls in a 24-hour shift.
It’s midnight and no one is happy about getting woken up for a call that tends to be nothing. We’ll typically get cancelled off of this kind of call – at least half the time. It usually ends up being a simple lift assist or maybe they pushed the button while at someone else’s home or at a restaurant. The elderly often don’t understand the nature of the technology. It’s not a GPS (yet) and pushing the button only sends responders to the address on record.
LT tells me that they don’t have any more information than we do. It appears that no one is home; no lights on in the house, no answer to the door. They are going around the house to see if there’s a way inside. We can’t just leave when someone activates the medical alarm. They could be having the big one and can’t get to the door. They’ll break in if they have to.
Standing in front of the house with the engine noise of two rigs and strobes flashing I’m watching the firefighters check windows for entry. If they can find me a patient I’ll be happy to jump in but breaking and entering is their specialty, not mine. A neighbor walks up to me, attracted by the commotion.
“That’s Irma’s house, is something wrong with her?”
“I don’t know, that’s what we’re trying to find out.” First responders are always circumspect about giving information to bystanders because of patient confidentiality issues. But this seems to be a concerned neighbor. She tells me that she checks on Irma a couple times a day because she lives alone and is having an increasingly difficult time taking care of herself. I ask if she has a key or if she knows of a hidden key. She answers no to both questions.
I tell the LT what I know and he assigns one of his guys to force a window open. Of course the crap job of breaking and entering goes to the rookie on his crew. You never know what’s on the other side of a window – maybe a guard dog. The rookie is able to pry the window up and climbs inside. After maybe thirty seconds he screams out the window, “She’s got a knife!” What the hell?
LT and the other two firefighters instantly spring into action. LT gets on the radio requesting city PD to respond to our location code 3 while the other two run to the BRT and slide open the exterior cabinets containing tools. They rush the front door with the Halligan (think pry-bar multi-tool) and an axe. Prying the door away from the frame one of the firefighters puts a shoulder to it and breaks the dead bolt free of the hole. The door crashes in and we all rush into the living room.
Standing in the corner of the living room is the rookie; hands in the air, eyes big and round. In front of him is a little old gray-haired lady waving a huge kitchen knife at all of us, while supporting herself on a walker. She’s terrified – almost as much as the rookie. LT is trying to reason with her, “We’re the fire department, we’re here to help, no one’s going to hurt you, put down the knife!”
The neighbor pokes her head in the doorway. “She’s deaf, she can’t understand you.” She comes inside so Irma can see her. LT has everyone back away and the neighbor calms Irma down and takes away the knife. LT is checking on his rookie and I walk Irma and the neighbor into the kitchen to see if anything is wrong with her aside from being so scared.
I spend a half hour writing notes back a forth with Irma. I find out that she must have accidently pushed he medical alarm, that hangs around her neck, while sleeping and has no medical complaints. She doesn’t want to go to the hospital – she just wants everyone to leave so she can calm down and try to go back to sleep. As I interact with Irma the fire crew tries to piece her door frame back together. They’ve done this before so they have all of the tools – wood glue, nails, etc. It’s not perfect but it will keep her secure until she can replace it, which probably won’t happen.
Irma checks out fine and signs my release of liability form so I can leave her in peace. As I’m walking back to the rig LT and the other firefighters are giving the rookie shit for getting assaulted by a granny with a knife with a walker. He’s probably going to need to change his shorts when he gets back to the station and he’ll be the brunt of jokes at dinner in the station for months to come.
As my partner flicks off the strobes and we drive out of the deep hood I realize that PD never showed up and LT didn’t cancel them. They just didn’t respond. They’ve already reduced the police force by ten percent and we’re starting to see the results on the street.
That’s more than a little disconcerting…