Monday, September 28, 2009

Somehow I missed this about Denise

For Emergency Use Only

By Laura Sperling

Published: Friday, September 25, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 24, 2009 at 6:40 p.m.

When I called 9-1-1 the other night, my heart was galumphing like an off-kilter washing machine.

I wasn't dying. I was simply freaking out.

I had been driving the inside lane down a dark, crowded, rain-slicked U.S. 41. As the clot of cars and trucks headed south near Sarasota Memorial Hospital, the air suddenly ripped with the odd but unmistakable blast of a wailing locomotive -- so close-range that I thought impact was imminent.

The left half of my brain knew there are no train tracks anywhere near the hospital. The right half was screaming, "SWERVE OR YOU'RE GONNA DIE!" Somehow I didn't do either. Instead, I froze until I realized that the noise from hell was emanating from an adjacent pickup truck.

Apparently the driver was having a little "fun" with his train horn -- an add-on car accessory that seems to have no purpose other than to explode eardrums. One Web site that sells the horns warns that they can "ruin your hearing if you happen to be too close to them when they blow."

I'm reasonably certain that this level of noise violates a state statute, and I'm absolutely sure it can scare the daylights out of anyone who unexpectedly hears it from a few feet away, as I did. It could even trigger a bad accident.

As the panic subsided, I heard laughter, which made me want to tear the horn off that truck and twist it around the driver's neck. But he kept moving south and I turned toward home. On a side street I pulled over, dug out my cell phone and -- heart racing -- dialed 9-1-1.

On second thought ...

"What is the nature of your emergency?" the operator asked.

It was an unexpectedly tough question. Illegal and potentially destructive though the horn blast was, nobody was hurt. So did this really amount to a 9-1-1 "emergency"?

The operator didn't think so, I sensed. She was polite but unfamiliar with train horns. When I tried to describe one, she seemed more interested in getting my name down.

The knowledge that everything I said was being taped made me feel sheepish -- and a bit irrational. What if the hooligan tracked me down and blasted his horn in my driveway at 4 a.m.? My elderly neighbor might have a heart attack. Heck, I might. That would be 9-1-1 worthy, but I'd rather not go through it.

By the time the call ended, the truck/locomotive was long gone and I was perplexed. When I got home, I looked up state law on car horns. Florida Statute 316.271 bans "unreasonably loud or harsh sound," but it's only penalized as a moving violation, not a crime.

It's easy -- maybe too easy

I now realize I should have called a non-emergency line of the Sarasota Police Department. But I don't know that number and, on the road, 9-1-1 is so much easier to remember.

Indeed, it may be too easy. According to a recently released report sponsored by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice, nonemergency contacts make up an estimated half of all calls to Florida 9-1-1 centers.

Some calls are just idiotic, like the ones from goofballs complaining about a disappointing fast-food meal.

But even people who should know better sometimes make questionable use of 9-1-1. As you may have read in the Herald-Tribune last week, an off-duty Longboat Key police officer dialed the emergency line to complain about cars on her Sarasota street. The traffic apparently was due to parents waiting to pick up their children at a nearby school.

The story took a darker twist when parents then called 9-1-1 on the officer, who was accused of aggravated assault in a conflict with one of the mothers.

The three threads that run through these examples -- mine included -- are frustration, easily accessible cell phones, and a mind-set that 9-1-1 is the best way to seek help. I doubt any of us were thinking about the collective impact on the emergency communications system.

Experts say a high volume of nonemergency calls can distract 9-1-1 staff and contribute to the kind of chaos seen -- to devastating effect -- in the Denise Lee case.

Lee, a North Port mom, was kidnapped and killed despite urgent 9-1-1 calls from her and witnesses. The information was relayed to Charlotte County dispatchers, but they failed -- for several reasons, including distractions and communication breakdowns -- to pass it on to deputies who might have been able to save Lee.

That outcome is too sad for words. I think of Lee often, but -- judging by my misguided 9-1-1 call -- not often enough.