Fast-Food Emergency

Posted March 08, 2009, at 5:23 p.m.

Most everyone got a chuckle out of the recent news story about the woman who called 911 — three times — to complain that a McDonald’s restaurant in Fort Pierce, Fla., would not serve her chicken nuggets. But the story illustrates a serious problem with the use of 911 that exists everywhere — even in Maine.

Speaking to a reporter a few days after the incident, Latreasa Goodman, 27, admitted she was embarrassed about the media attention, but suggested her side of the story was not made clear.

In the recording of the 911 call, she is heard saying: “The manager just took my money and won’t give me my money back, trying to make me get something off the menu that I don’t want.” Ms. Goodman asked for a refund, but claims the restaurant refused the request.

It has been less than 15 years since 911 service became available in Maine’s more rural areas. For those too young to remember, summoning police, fire or ambulance help was accomplished by calling the local seven-digit number. The number was well-known by most people, and for those in doubt, it was posted on the refrigerator or on the phone receiver. And in the phone book.

What 911 service achieved, as it expanded throughout the state, was making it possible for someone visiting Aunt Matilda at her camp in East Overshoe to get help fast if she fell. It also is faster to dial. Mobile 911 calls are routed to state police dispatch centers, then relayed to the appropriate local agency.

More recently, the state implemented the enhanced, or E-911 service, which allows dispatchers to see the caller’s location on a map on a computer screen, along with other vital information.

Evidence of inappropriate 911 use can be had by listening to a police scanner. There’s the caller who needs an ambulance ride to the emergency room because he is constipated. The woman who calls the emergency number because she suspects her neighbor is diverting his melting snowbanks into her driveway. Or the caller who uses 911 to ask if the fire department still fills people’s swimming pools.

A state public safety dispatcher said she has gotten 911 calls on Thanksgiving morning from people who want advice on cooking their butterball turkey, from those with electric power outages, and from someone who couldn’t get his track phone to work on any other call.

Yet, some Mainers, particularly older citizens, won’t use 911 for anything short of a home invasion in progress.

And there is something to say in Ms. Goodman’s defense. The fast-food restaurant should have refunded her money. In the end, she may have been sounding the alarm on the death of good customer service, something of dire importance in this economy.

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