Originally Published: June 21, 2018 5:55 a.m.
There was once an old Hollywood trope that firefighters were the people to call when a cat was up a tree and wouldn’t come down.
Many people, it seems, remember the trope.
In March, a Phoenix TV station put a live picture of a cat atop a utility pole on Facebook, and the Phoenix Fire alarm room was swamped with calls from concerned people around the country, who saw the video, and wanted the cat saved.
The cat was eventually brought down by Salt River Project power company linemen.
Phoenix Fire spokesman Capt. Rob McDade told the Arizona Republic newspaper that, while the department is concerned with animal welfare, “we have human lives we have to save at the same time.”
”There are two schools of thought on cats in trees. One is that ‘I’ve never seen a cat skeleton in a tree,’” Central Arizona Fire and Medical Authority Chief Scott Freitag said.
“The other is that we have seen badly injured elderly folks or kids at the bottom of trees where the cat had been hanging out. To that end, do we get the cat to avoid having to respond for a serious injury, or do we not get the cat, and deal with whatever happens?”
Prescott Fire Chief Dennis Light said it would be “a stretch” to call a wayward animal problem an emergency, and advocated first trying a simpler solution.
“In the case of cats, one thing I encourage is for the caller to perhaps ‘open a can of tuna’ to coax the feline down,” he said.
But, if that doesn’t work, he agreed that it could be safer for firefighters to respond to the situation.
“If such things don’t work, I do request that contact be made with the Battalion Chief (the shift supervisor) in order to put eyes on the situation,” Light said.
“If we failed to do that and some young child were to go and get his daddy’s ladder, and then throw the ladder and, God forbid, strike a power line, that results in an untoward outcome all would feel we failed.”
Light went on to recount an incident he’d seen in another Arizona city, in which a swan was spotted with an arrow in its head, swimming in a canal. Worried 911 callers wanted to have someone come help the swan, but Arizona Game and Fish said they weren’t able. So, Light said, “We enlisted our special ops folks with water training to aid in the recovery of the duck.”
He added, “The same principal applied, in that our fear was someone with less training or, worst yet, no training, would try to intervene and something bad would happen.”
Freitag said that sometimes, people frame their opposition as an economic issue.
“The interesting argument from some is that, ‘By God, I do not want my tax dollars wasted on these types of responses.’ On the other hand, the person who called is also a taxpayer and would like to see their tax dollars used to assist them. It is a balance that we struggle with,” he said.
“So, do we get cats — sometimes — but rarely do we get that type of call. Do we sometimes help a resident that locks themselves out of something? On occasion, yes.”
Freitag pointed out that such calls make up less than half of 1 percent of their overall call volume.
“The idea that we will save thousands of dollars by not responding is just not true,” he said.
The story does not always have a Hollywood ending when the fire department arrives, Light said, recalling a situation in which a neighboring department went out to get a cat down from a tree. The firefighter who climbed the ladder wasn’t wearing protective gear.
“The feline became aggressive, and as a result was dropped by the firefighter,” Light recalled.
The cat might have been all right, but it fell into a backyard occupied by “an even more aggressive pit bull,” with predictable results.