To the Rev. William B. Cole Jr., 911 is more than an emergency service. It is the difference between lying in bed all day and being able to move about his small, dark apartment in Northwest Washington.
To firefighters at nearby Station 9, the 58-year-old former pastor is just one example of how District residents misuse the 911 system and strain an already burdened fire and ambulance department.
Cole, who has battled multiple sclerosis since 1959, has grown so disabled in recent years that he no longer can move from his bed to his wheelchair without help. About a year ago he started calling 911.
The calls have increased in frequency, the firefighters at Station 9 say, and in the last three months of 1990, he called 35 times.
After each call, five firefighters climb into a fire truck and drive from the station in the 1600 block of U Street NW to Cole's apartment in the 2000 block of 15th Street NW, where they move him from bed to chair. Fire department rules prohibit refusing any request for help.
On the days when he doesn't call 911, Cole says he either stays in bed or rolls onto the floor and propels himself around with his arms.
Several neighbors and a manager at Campbell Heights Apartments, the subsidized building for senior citizens and disabled people where Cole lives, said they are aware of his problem but unable to help.
"I go in there if he calls me to turn the heat on, but I can't lift him," said Rachel Payne, 89, Cole's neighbor. "He's too heavy -- and you see, I use canes myself."
If he does leave his bed, Cole is unable to get back into it until the arrival of a homemaker from the city's Department of Human Services who cares for him two hours a day. Sometimes, if he tires of waiting for the homemaker, he calls 911.
"Here's this man who's abusing the system, but only because he doesn't know what else to do," said Lt. Michael Smith, who frequently responds to Cole's calls for help. "He needs to get out of bed in the morning, and the only thing that's guaranteed is that if he dials 911, something will happen."
Smith and other firefighters say there are dozens of people like Cole in every neighborhood, people who use the fire and ambulance system for transportation, home medical care or simple human contact.
"We've run people who bumped their heads, who have stomach aches," said Capt. Rogers Massey of Fire Station 19 on Capitol Hill. "There's a lot of people in Anacostia who don't have any other way to get to the hospital. It's an economic thing."
Many, like Cole, say they are aware that they are burdening the system but know of no other way to get help. A Human Services spokeswoman said the agency knows of Cole's problem, but, short of moving him to a full-care facility, does not know how it can move him whenever he wants.
"I would appreciate a good phone number to help me, because I don't want to tie up a fire truck or firemen," Cole said. "But so far, I have not been able to find one."