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?[PAGEBREAK]

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.

Handling Abuse

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 [email protected].


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.