A price for crying wolf

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 September, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 September, 1999, 12:00am

A Sikorsky S76 rescue helicopter of the Government Flying Services whirls over Kowloon, heading towards a lonely village on Mirs Bay. An old woman waits to be taken to hospital for an operation. Suddenly, the pilot receives an emergency call from his control room. The aircraft veers starboard and heads east towards Sai Kung Country Park.

It's near dusk when a crewman spots three figures waving on a high peak. The helicopter hovers. The trio is winched up. 'Thank you,' shouts one of the teenagers. 'We were very tired.' In danger? No. Just weary and wanting a ride home. So they called 999 and said they were hikers lost and in distress.

Unbelievable? No. It happens regularly. And the same sort of attitude exists in regard to police, fire and ambulance services.

The number of foolish, malicious and thoughtless calls to our emergency services is reaching crisis proportion. I believe the Government should move firmly to put a stop to such irresponsible behaviour; a $20,000 fine for a first offence sounds about right.

In addition, the guilty should be fully billed for the costs incurred.

The problem is calls for help cannot be ignored. The emergency services can't take the chance that someone may be in genuine distress. So all calls are answered. This dedication to public safety tends to make the angels of mercy into attendants to the irresponsible.

The past couple of weeks have shown dramatically the value of Hong Kong's emergency services.

One recent weekend was a period of energy-draining heat. Up into the hills trekked hundreds of hikers. Many, however, fail to take basic precautions. They don't realise how walking slowly up a slope in temperatures of 35 degrees Celsius drags liquid from the body. They don't know they are becoming badly dehydrated until they feel weak and exhausted. Then they slump down to rest. Some never rise again. Three hill climbers died that weekend. This is why emergency services can never ignore a call, no matter how trivial it may seem.

This is why people who misuse 999 services for frivolous or malicious reasons deserve realistic punishment; they take advantage of the services' devotion to duty. In doing so, they place at risk the lives of others who are in genuine need.

So far this year, the Government Flying Service has answered 11 calls it classed as malicious or unnecessary. Seven were hoax calls; shouldn't this call for a prison sentence? In four cases, the helicopters reached the people who called 999, and dropped them at a landing spot where ambulances were waiting.

The four parties of hikers then refused to get into the ambulances and walked off into the twilight, no doubt looking for the nearest dai pai dong. Doesn't it make you feel good, as a taxpayer, to know you are footing the bill for these jaunts? Firemen last year answered - believe it or not! - 1,758 malicious calls reporting non-existent blazes or people trapped and needing help. That's about five a day.

Why isn't the Director of Fire Services pressing for a huge increase in the ridiculously lenient penalties for giving 'false alarm of fire or other calamity'? At present, the maximum fine is a ludicrous $1,000.

Why aren't Legco members shouting for action? I contacted a dozen for comment; none found the issue worthy of their attention.

Police last year received 301 malicious calls. They tracked down 297 of those responsible; when a caller dials 999, the phone from where the call was made is logged. If it's a fake or vindictive call, police can knock on the right door and demand an explanation. Often, they find a child. Hopefully, the parents instil a lesson that puts him off making phoney rescue calls for the rest of his life.

That parental deterrent will probably be more useful than the official penalties. The maximum fine for wasting police time is $2,000 and misleading police costs a mere $1,000. Both offences also carry six months in jail; but nobody to whom I spoke can remember anyone being locked up for such offences.

Even genuine cases of distress could be avoided if people used a little commonsense. The air conditions were vile and the heat was unrelenting when three people died of heat stroke two weeks ago.

As helicopter crews tried to locate those in urgent need, they kept getting signals from dozens of other hikers waving for help. From the air, how could they know who was near death and who felt like a quick trip down the mountain for a cold drink? There are a sizeable number of people who create additional, unnecessary problems. Take the parents who took children out at the height of Typhoon York, to watch the windows fly out of office blocks in Wan Chai North. It's difficult to imagine anything more foolish.

Police and ambulancemen can't pick and choose who will live and die; they're obligated to try to save everyone. But those who waste the time of the emergency services should be charged, and also given a hefty bill to cover manpower and fuel. Why should taxpayers be expected to subsidise the idiocies of the irresponsible?