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Reducing Response to Non-Emergency 911 Calls

Cut down on your jurisdiction’s misdials and prank calls that tie up dispatchers and police officers.

July 31, 2009  |  by Joseph Petrocelli - Also by this author


Your agency may be able to reduce costs by studying how to reduce 911 calls and also how to limit police response in situations that show no evidence of an emergency. Photo via Rhea C (Flickr.com).

The ongoing recession has forced police departments to look for areas where they can save money. One source of savings may be found in your agency's response to 911 calls. This might seem unlikely because 911 response is one of the basic functions of any police department and the number of 911 calls has exponentially increased in recent years, due in part to the proliferation of cell phones. Despite this, your agency may be able to reduce costs by studying how to reduce 911 calls and also how to limit police response in situations that show no evidence of an emergency.

There is little doubt that the number of 911 calls is increasing. Since 2000, 911 calls in Fairfax, Va., have risen 50 percent, forcing Fairfax County to expand its call center staff from 154 to 204 and catapulting the maintenance of its 911 system from $2 million to more than $10 million. This type of increase is indicative of trends throughout the country. As new cellular phone technologies emerge, the challenges to police will increase. Agencies must take steps to reduce response to fictitious 911 calls so the limited resources can be properly allocated to real emergencies.

Phantoms and Pranks

One of the biggest problems confronting police is unintentional 911 calls, specifically "phantom wireless 911 calls." The National Emergency Number Association reports that between 25 and 70 percent of all 911 calls in the United States are phantom calls, those made by automatic dialers or sent by redialing features on cellular phones. Another problem is caused by misdials, many of which can be traced to callers who misdialed area codes similar to 911, such as Wilmington (910), Savannah (912), Kansas City (913), Westchester County (914), El Paso (915), Sacramento (916), Tulsa (918), and Raleigh (919).

A similar problem arises when a caller wants to use the international access code of "011." Another problem can arise with fax machines that require the user to dial "9" to get an outside line. Although there is limited research on the misuse of the 911 system, agencies that have conducted investigations find that the majority of hang-up calls are the result of misdialing rather than prank calls.

When prank calls do come, juveniles are usually responsible. These calls tend to emanate from malls, bowling alleys, schools, and arcade centers where unsupervised young teens congregate. These calls are often written off as harmless teenage fun, but the cumulative effect drains the resources of law enforcement.

Non-Emergency Calls

Equally harmful are callers who use the 911 system inappropriately for non-emergency situations. Some people report matters that require police attention but are not emergencies, such as automobile crashes without injuries or overnight burglaries. Others use the 911 system for non-essential information such as obtaining directions or checking on pick-up times for garbage. Some people call 911 and then ask to be transferred to another bureau within the police department, perhaps out of ignorance or because most companies do not charge for calls to 911. One off-duty officer was caught using the 911 system to avoid paying for calls to headquarters.

Misuse of the 911 system also comes in the form of those who exaggerate the nature of a call to yield a quicker police response. A call of "a group of kids on the corner" will probably not garner a police response as quickly as a call of "a group of kids on the corner with guns."

Those who misuse the 911 system in an effort to distort the priority of the call should be punished, while a small number of 911 abusers are to be pitied. Many lonely shut-ins use the 911 system and the attendant police response to gain some brief company and human interaction. Their motivation is not sinister, and they do not realize the risk incurred by law enforcement responding to a 911 call. They also do not realize the public expense their calls create.

Mining for Information

With the various types of abuse to the 911 system and the myriad motivations of offenders, different responses are necessary to address the broad spectrum of abuse.

The first step in formulating a response is to clearly identify the problem by researching 911 call logs and asking the right questions. Do non-emergency 911 calls emanate from private homes, public phones, wireless phones, or fax machines? Are the calls pranks or misdials? Are the calls requests for non-emergency services? Are any of the calls malicious diversionary calls, designed to divert police attention to one side of town to facilitate criminality on another side of town? Are the calls exaggerated to garner a quicker police response?

The next step is to ascertain what resources your agency has to combat the identified problem(s). Are there laws that pertain to 911 misuse? Are there consequences for those who exaggerate 911 calls? How does your 911 center monitor and log misuse of the 911 system? Are the problems specific to your jurisdiction or surrounding towns?

Tags: 911 Calls, Dispatchers, Great Recession


Comments (1)

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TYIER JONES @ 1/24/2011 10:24 AM

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