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Enough is Enough: How Non-emergency Calls Have Compromised Our Emergency Number

Author: Barry Furey

Date: 2017-03-07
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If you cruise around the web, you’ll see plenty of stories about how most calls to 9-1-1 aren’t truly emergencies. For those of us involved in the day-to-day provision of law enforcement, fire, and medical services, this trip wasn’t really necessary. We already knew that a good portion of the events delivered to us don’t require a lights and siren response. Some are handled through routine assignment, and others can be managed online or over the phone.

Myself, I’ve never had an issue with fielding calls on 9-1-1 that ultimately resulted in the assignment of public safety personnel in a low priority manner. After all, it’s our careful questioning that typically makes the difference on how an incident is classified. The fine line between emergent and non-emergent is something not easily explained to the public, who often classify an emergency as anything that’s happening to them right now. I’m also not a fan of instructing citizens to call back on another number, especially when you’re the one who is going to answer that line, anyway. Unless they’re tying up the last available trunk, the quickest way to prepare for the next emergency is to finish their current request. A quick lecture after assistance is provided seems to be the best means of addressing what to do in the future. Having them redial after you’ve given them an alternate number (likely while they looked for something to write it down with) doesn’t seem all that effective. While some may see it as a moral victory, it really only serves to aggravate the citizen while elongating the process. They may be wrong, but why rub their face in it?

While we may expect our callers to know the non-emergency number, unless we’re supporting 3-1-1, that’s a tall order. There is no standard form or format for how these lesser incidents are managed nationwide, and it’s important to remember that according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), about 70% of all 9-1-1 calls come from wireless devices. That means that 7 out of 10 of our callers are not likely to be lugging around a phone book. Oh sure, they could ask Siri to look it up, but who does, and how would it be listed? Before we place the blame, there best be some serious coordination with our police departments, as well, because on more than one occasion I’ve encountered officers who routinely advise citizens to call 9-1-1 for everything.

The basic problem is that 9-1-1 is ubiquitous – as it should be. It’s easy, it’s free, and it’s always open. The public knows this, and they use and abuse us.  And we’ve compounded the problem by letting our collective governments take advantage of us, as well. After-hours service for the water department? Let the folks at 9-1-1 do it. They’re there anyway.  Keeping track of off duty deputies working private assignments? Well, that’s officer safety. Sounds like another job for 9-1-1!  I’ll also lump in fielding calls from the media here. Over the ages, we’ve somehow become the default Public Information Officer for all the agencies we serve. Before we took action to curb it, this represented over 25,000 calls per year in one of my facilities. The damage done by escalating call volumes is often magnified by the collateral workload that we assume from within.

Some of the issues that befall us are technical in nature. The last center that I managed was treated to an area code overlay. This meant that folks like grandma who dialed her next-door neighbor for her entire life using only seven digits now had to add an extra three. It sounds simple until you appreciate that the prevailing area code was 9-1-9, which is just a single numerical and anatomical digit removed from summoning the troops. And summon they did. Our overall call volume rose 20%, hang-up calls increased 92%, and our outbound dialing grew by 80% as we called back thousands of unanswered misdials. As the state capital, a not insignificant number of these came from businesses and government offices who were now dealing with adding 9919 to get an outside number. This is just one more reason why Kari’s Law makes sense. It was of little comfort finding out after the fact that other communities having similar area codes faced the same battles. My condolences to those that remain.

Technology also rears its ugly head in the form of Non-Service Initiated (NSI) wireless devices. Permitted by the FCC for 9-1-1 only service, their heralded intent is to assure that every phone can report an emergency. Their unfortunate legacy is that they are used as a means to anonymously annoy call takers. Further, some firms have marketed these handsets as the ultimate in added protection, while in reality they fall short of the features provided by a standard subscription. Until we close this loophole, there remains a significant but undefined pool of callers at large that can greatly impact, but do not financially support, our services.

But even those wireless callers that do pay change the game through the over-reporting of emergencies. Location plays a greater part here than does severity. The minor fender bender on the expressway will likely generate more interest than the fire on the isolated country road. Do the fourteenth, fifteenth, and twenty-second call provide any more information than the first? Perhaps not, but each and every one must be answered and properly processed.

I think, however, that the most revered waster of time is weather. No matter where you live, neither snow, nor rain, nor gloom of night will stay the citizen from calling to ask when their power will come back on. Or if schools are closed. Or how the roads are. Holidays, too, can also add special touches like what time is the parade? Or is the courthouse open? Or when do the fireworks start? However, in my forty-some-odd years of experience, nothing seems to beat a good blizzard or gully washer as a catalyst for a dialing frenzy.

In the end, what is and what is not an emergency may rest in the ear of the beholder. Even some of the crazy McDonald’s drive-thru calls showcased on the news may have some validity if the complainant paid for something they didn’t get. Are they nine-one-one worthy? Probably not, but when some communities actively encourage the use of the emergency number as the sole means of contact with public safety, a clear message of selectivity is not being sent. Somewhere along the line perhaps we should be asking if it would really matter what kinds of calls we took if we were adequately staffed? A day in the life of many PSAPs resembles the local Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve when only two registers are open and the entire community is doing their last-minute shopping.

Until we can finally get ahead of the problem, we’ll continue to do our best to separate the wheat from the chaff of our inbound calls using the resources on hand. If there’s one sure thing it’s that we’ll have enough work to keep us busy. And in this case, enough is truly enough.


With more than 45 years’ experience in public safety, including managing large consolidated dispatch centers in four states, Barry Furey now serves as a trainer and consultant for the 9-1-1 and public safety communications community.  See 


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