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

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

Most of these calls are clearly absurd, but what gives me pause are the last two. Early in my 9-1-1 career, we listened to a number of 9-1-1 calls handled by other operators within the agency. One call involved an operator who was still in training. She still had her trainer listening to her and able to take over the call if necessary but she sat across the room at another console. The call involved a young lady who called stating she was in the bathroom and was out of toilet paper. Absurd, right? This would certainly have made the WCCCA and the E-Comm lists. The trainee wasn’t really sure how to handle the call. After all when you’re a new 9-1-1 operator, you feel as if every call should be an emergency and you want to be the best at your new job yet absurd callers are going to call and the switchboard doesn’t have the intelligence to only give those calls to people who’ve been around a while.

So, this trainee struggled with the call asking more and more questions and an interesting scenario began to emerge the more they talked. In the end, it turned out the caller was really distraught because she was involved in a long-term domestic dispute with her boyfriend. The refusal to bring her toilet paper was just the final act in a day-long fight. Officers went to the house and hopefully the girl was given some toilet paper and a ride to the local domestic violence shelter. Point being, if the caller would have been blown off as absurd, this situation could have turned ugly and we would have ended up out at the house anyway after a neighbor called 9-1-1 because of the physical fight now occurring in the front yard. The same situation often occurs when a call for help “putting the kids to bed” or “getting the remote back from the son” is actually a family fight or child abuse brewing.

There are definitely too many people who use 9-1-1 for non-emergency issues. Many agencies using a customer service oriented business model spend a lot of time dealing with these calls in a polite manner when in reality emergency calls are waiting. What’s interesting about WCCCA is they had a representative come and speak at APCO 2013. She explained how their agency had changed the way they looked at their mission and the role of their 9-1-1 operators. They went to a call model that immediately sent non-emergency callers to a recorded message with a variety of non-emergency numbers on the recording. 9-1-1 operators play a mission-critical role and need to be free to do their jobs. E-Comm agrees. “These people are here to save lives and protect property,” explains Jody Robertson, E-Comm spokesperson. If it takes a few callers called out and shamed, so be it. It might make someone think twice before calling 9-1-1 for a non-emergency and in that moment, the 9-1-1 operator is free to take a call where he or she saves a life.