Calling out the non-emergency 9-1-1 callers

People call 9-1-1 for a variety of reasons. Although most are reference legitimate threats to life or property, a number of them are downright absurd. Renting a fire truck, getting a wake-up call and help because the gas pump won’t take the debit card...


As 9-1-1 operators, all of us have taken our share of absurd and utterly inappropriate 9-1-1 calls. During my time on the phones, I don’t know how many times I envied the State dispatchers who were allowed to just tell an inappropriate caller, “This isn’t an emergency. You’ll have to call our non-emergency line.” Click. My agency had policies that were a little less stern when it came to dealing with non-emergency calls. Most calls went something like this:

Me: “I’m sorry, Sir, this is not an emergency so you will need to call the non-emergency line.”

Caller: “What?”

Me: “This is not an emergency. Please call the non-emergency police line.”

Caller: “Well I don’t have that number.”

Me: “I can give it to you.”

Caller: “Ok, what is it?”

Me: “It’s 602…”

Caller: “Wait. Wait! I need to find something to write with.”

(Several moments go by)

Me: “Are you ready, sir?”

Caller: “Hold on. I just had a pen. Darn, this one doesn’t write. Can’t you just transfer me?”

Me: “No, I can’t. It would tie up an emergency line.”

(Me watching the incoming 9-1-1 calls stacking up)

Me: “Are you ready?”

Caller: “I can’t find anything just give me the number. I’ll remember it.”

Then, I would give the caller the number and finally be able to hang up and continue taking the actual emergency calls that came in. If this conversation seems absurd, imagine it after we were required to immediately put a non-emergency caller on hold if 9-1-1 calls were holding. Then it was more like:

Me: “The number is…Hold please”

Me: “Ok, I’m back. Are you ready…hold please.”

That could go on for a very long time. As a response to the amount of non-emergency calls that were coming into their 9-1-1 center, Washington County Consolidated Communications Agency (WCCCA) in Oregon started highlighting a weekly most frivolous 9-1-1 call in a new social media campaign called, “You called 9-1-1 for that?!” The first call was chosen January 28th and immediately the public began weighing in. The first “winner” was a gentleman speaking broken English (his primary language was Cantonese) calling 9-1-1 because his debit card wouldn’t work at the gas station and there wasn’t an attendant present because the gas station was closed. Comments, both in support and in opposition to the campaign popped up on both the Facebook page and the news report done by KGW Portland.

Many people thought WCCCA was only encouraging people to make ridiculous 9-1-1 calls to make the list. WCCCA replied that the campaign is designed to be educational and all calls are screened before they are chosen. If a call looked staged it would not be selected.

I have to wonder, even if they are ruled out, if people are encouraged to make the week’s most ridiculous 9-1-1 call list won’t that defeat the purpose of the educational campaign and tie up more 9-1-1 lines unnecessarily? Either way, it certainly has 9-1-1 professionals and the public talking about the issue.     

WCCCA is not the only agency sharing inappropriate 9-1-1 calls for public education and clearly this is not only an American issue. In December, E-Comm, the agency responsible for answering 9-1-1 calls in metro-Vancouver, British Columbia and several surrounding areas, released its list of the ten most absurd 9-1-1 calls of 2013. The calls included:

A caller who wanted to speak with someone about renting a fire truck to block off a street for a party

A caller who wanted to report their newspaper delivery was late

A caller who wanted to know if it was “OK” for them to drive in the HOV lane because traffic was backed up and they are late for an important meeting

A caller who wanted to request a wake-up call

A caller who wanted an officer to come over and tell the kids to go to bed

A caller who wanted their son to give them back the remote control

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