Addressing Specific Problems
Some problems can only be addressed at the federal level. Phantom calls from certain wireless phones were reduced by a mandate from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates the wireless phone industry. Such solutions are obviously outside the direct influence of local police departments, but local agencies can team up to present concerns (with supporting evidence) to local members of Congress. Changes like prohibitions against automatic 911 dialing or ordering the recall of preprogrammed wireless phones can only come from the federal level, but with input and support from the local level.
Many problems emanating from landlines are best addressed on the local level. This is especially true when 911 calls are coming from specific segments of the population. If the problem is international callers accidentally dialing 911 instead of 011, an education program may be in order. Such education efforts should obviously be tailored to a specific community and should appear in that native language. This information can be distributed with phone cards and placed around public phones. If the problem is misdialing by elderly people, encourage them to remove 911 from their commonly called numbers. All persons should be made aware that it is essential to stay on the line even if 911 is dialed by accident.
If the hang-up calls are coming from a public phone where kids are known to congregate, some police departments require a third person confirmation before a unit is dispatched. A unit will not be dispatched until mall security confirms an emergency is present. Or you can contact arcade owners, bowling alley operators, or ice cream shop owners in the mail and only send a unit if they confirm the emergency.
Decreasing Personal Response
If unintentional (phantom) calls are the main problem, a system can be developed to automatically screen calls by a machine. In 2001, the California Highway Patrol initiated a system during peak call times. If the dispatcher could not determine that a caller was on the line, the call was shifted to another line.
Callers were required to speak or push any key before being returned to a live operator. If there was no response after the message played twice, the call was ended. During a five-week trial period, the waiting time for a dispatcher to answer a 911 call dropped from 93 seconds to 8 seconds. The system was discontinued after advocates for the deaf community raised concerns, but this type of system holds much potential.
Mandatory response to all 911 calls is no longer required. Some departments have taken to only dispatching an officer when there is evidence of an emergency. Some departments do not deal with priority hang-up calls where no emergency is obvious. They put out a general call for any officer in the area to handle the call, but no unit will be specifically dispatched.
Your agency should have some enforcement options available to deal with repetitive abusers of the 911 system. In most cases criminal prosecution is rare, saved only for the most severe offenders. Civil fines may be more appropriate than criminal sanctions in many cases. Sometimes just providing a department's enforcement policy to offenders can be enough of a deterrent. This program works especially well with children who play with the telephone. When parents realize that there may be financial consequences, abuse of the 911 system usually ends.
The 911 system is a valuable life saving tool. Properly utilized, it can be a major asset to a police department. But when the system is abused, it can be a major drain of police resources.
Det. Joseph Petrocelli is a 20-year veteran of New Jersey law enforcement. You can comment on this article, suggest other topics, or reach the author by e-mailing the editor at Editor@PoliceMag.com.
FINDING QUALIFIED DISPATCHERS
Another problem facing many police departments is where to find good 911 dispatchers. Dispatchers are a crucial lifeline for any police officer and the selection of personnel for this job should be stringent. In locating good people to fill this vital role, consider hiring disabled veterans. The injuries these wounded warriors have incurred often do not preclude them from the duties of a dispatcher. Experience has found them to be mature, disciplined, cool under pressure, and responsible. Disabled veterans have been found to be an asset to many police departments' public communications division.