False alarm again!
The Jamaica Fire Brigade is among the agencies grappling to deal with prank callers, after over 1,800 of the 14,400 calls made to the organisation last year for help turned out to be false.
Spokesman for the fire department, Emelio Ebanks, said that these pranksters have cost the State-run company possibly millions of dollars in losses, as fire units were sent out to respond each time on the premise that there was a genuine need for help.
“Once a call comes in, it is always treated as a genuine call, so persons go out with that state of readiness in mind. We are never ever telling ourselves that this is a prank call, because one of the things we have always told ourselves is that a false sense of security is worse than none at all,” he said.
“So we don’t want to put ourselves in that false sense where we are thinking it is a prank call and then when we go out there, we start acting in that manner, even though it is a real call,” he said.
The over 1,800 prank calls to which the fire unit responded last year are separate from calls made to their emergency numbers about matters unrelated to a fire. These unrecorded calls he said are sometimes derogatory in nature and are made by both children and adults.
Ebanks said that while most of the prank calls that the fire department receive are for help to put out fires, calls also come in seeking assistance with motor vehicle accidents or for humanitarian causes.
“We have had situations where we have had calls coming in from children, but that is really the minority, because once we have calls coming in from children, what we tend to do is try and find out if an adult is around, nevertheless, you still have to respond to these calls,” he said.
“It is as if from what we have been getting, some persons like to hear the siren for example. I don’t know if it is some kind of an adrenaline rush, but when they hear the sirens passing, it does something to them,” he said when asked about the possible reasons for this high volume of false calls.
Although prank calls are reported to the police, Ebanks said that it is oftentimes difficult to track down pranksters, since they usually use a pseudo name. He said that the fire brigade’s only recourse is the hosting of regular public education seminars in which people are informed about the dangers of prank calls. One such is the fact that it prevents the fire unit from responding to genuine calls for help.
“Let’s say for example you get a prank call for anywhere going up through Papine and there is a genuine call up Constant Spring Road. You will find that a unit will either have to come from Stony Hill or from York Park here which is downtown (Kingston), to get to that particular area. This situation is compounded when you are going in peak hour traffic,” he said.
Ebanks said that the fire company receives on average 1,500 prank calls per year, which over time impact on their resources.
“Consider the amount that it takes in diesel oil to get that fire unit out there; the wear and tear to the fire unit, because remember these units are very very costly depending on the type of unit that has to be sent out; the amount of human resources that have to be sent out, plus most importantly, the driver is maneuvering a heavy fire unit through the streets,” he said.
“The possibility of an accident is higher than the possibility of you just driving your ordinary car out there. You are putting the fire fighters at risk; you are putting the public at risk and there is just a wanton waste of resources that you the public would have to pay for,” he said.
But the fire brigade is not the only place targeted by pranksters, as other government agencies and private sector companies have reported having to deal with the issue.
According to one former employee of telecommunication company Digicel, it was not uncommon for children and adults to call the company’s 24-hour customer care centre, making request for free phone cards, expelling expletives or even asking the customer service agents for dates.
“Most mornings I was literally afraid to answer the phone because you used to have men for example who would just call in and would just be breathing heavily. Although you asked them to identify themselves, they refused to talk and since we were trained to be very professional, you couldn’t slam down the phone which is what I would have done had it been my personal phone,” she said.
Agents were told instead to warn such customers that the calls were considered prank ones and three or more such calls could result in them being automatically barred from calling again. However, she said, that this did not seem to be much of a deterrent as one could expect a prank call daily.
Digicel customer care director, Kerri-Ann Mitchell, confirmed that the company had to interface with prank callers. However, she said that they were manageable.
“While Digicel does indeed receive a number of prank calls, the issue is manageable and in terms of numbers, these callers do not make up a significant amount of our call volumes,” she said.
One customer service representative at telecommunications company LIME, said they too were not immune from prank callers.
“Normally two out of every 10 calls are prank or unrelated calls. Most of these callers are normally unsupervised kids who are cell phone owners or have access to landline,” she said.
“They normally either use profane language, make idle jokes or just call and hang up after the call is identified,” she said, while pointing out that the numbers of these callers were sometimes barred from calling again.
Ebanks said that his organisation will continue to inform the public about the dangers of prank calls. However he wants a more practical way to deterring such callers.
“Anything that would reduce the amount of false calls that we get, we would definitely support that move,” he said.