Recently on a professional forum a 911 Dispatcher from a fire department asked what others were doing reference “nuisance callers” describing a situation where someone called 10-20 times a day. The person never made any sense. Obviously the person had mental health issues and most 911 Dispatchers are sensitive to this problem but at the same time these callers take up precious time and staffing. After reading a number of the replies, it made me think about the different categories that came to mind reference nuisance callers. I reached out to some friends who are current 911 Dispatchers are here are some of their responses.
One of the 911 Dispatchers I spoke with first responded, “Wow, there are so many.” Then, she concentrated it down to the ones who call to scare their kids or want us to send officers out to teach their kids a lesson. She described one call where the father of a 10 year old called because he would not clean his room. The 911 Dispatcher asked him to put the kid on the phone which he did and she promptly told him if he didn’t want officers out there then he should just go clean his room. When dad got back on the phone he said his son had gone into his room and was cleaning. He wanted to know what she had said to him. She responded, “What any parent should say. Get in your room and clean it because you don’t want me coming there and taking care of it and throwing it away.” Basically she used her parenting skills to handle an annoying call where someone thought the police were the right co-parent for them.
Similar to the co-parent callers are the ones who ring up 911 during an argument with their significant other. Now we’re not talking about the ones who truly need police assistance because it’s a dangerous situation. The 911 Dispatcher who mentioned this one was talking about the ones who refused to answer any questions. He or she just keeps telling their partner they have the police on the line. Then they’ll finally just say to the operator, “Just send the cops,” and hang-up. They called just to push the other’s buttons. She described this kind of call like this, “Kind of like calling mom in the room when your little brother won’t give up the remote and sticking your tongue out at him behind mom’s back.” Well I called the police first so I win definitely qualifies as a nuisance.
Kids with Cell Phones
For those of us old enough to remember the days before cell phones, think about what you did to harass people. Remember picking up the phone (the kind that was still attached to the wall), dialing a number, waiting for a response and when you got one, hanging up immediately? This would result in immense laughter and rolling around on the bed at your friend’s house usually. Once you calmed down, you’d do it again…and again. Or you’d call a retail establishment, ask something super weird and then hang-up before being overtaken by peals of laughter. Very Bart/Lisa Simpson-like, if you’re old enough to remember that too. Well in the world of public safety, the equivalent is kids with cell phones that call 911 and hang-up over and over. Not only does this tax the system potentially causing life-threatening harm, it’s seriously annoying.
I Pay Your Salary or Just Send the Cops, Lady
The call where these words are spoken usually isn’t a nuisance call in and of itself. Sometimes the situation has some merit and/or requires a police response. But, these words are predominately spoken when the 911 Dispatcher tries to explain a situation or policy that the caller doesn’t want to hear. Or, if you “insist” on asking “a million unnecessary questions” which are in fact required and only a few essential ones. In response to a, “I pay your salary so you work for me,” a friend responded, “Well, no, I pay taxes too so I’m self-employed.” Another friend said that to a caller also and unfortunately got into trouble. It is only by virtue of the clicker that so many of us weren’t fired for speaking our truth to nuisance callers.
Mental Health Issues
A final category which has been at the heart of the emergence of a crisis/social service arm of public safety is those callers who are clearly mentally ill, including those with substance use disorders. These callers can tax a system and the patience of not only the 911 Dispatchers but the field responders they so often have to send out, sometimes numerous times a day. All too often these callers are handled by being issued a warning against misuse of emergency services. Sometimes it even escalates to a citation or an arrest. Unfortunately, this is that no-man’s land where social and mental health services have failed and public safety has to pick up the slack. After all, if you’re a paranoid schizophrenic who has audible/visual hallucinations who else can you call at 2am and get a real person on the phone? Some jurisdictions have begun high-utilizer services sending out social workers or crisis intervention specialists instead of field responders. Many of the programs include case management to try and help get the person connected with the appropriate services which is usually not a police officer, firefighter or medic. Unfortunately these services usually rely on grant funding or third-party billing and disappear as quickly as they appear. So 911 Dispatchers get to go back to listening to the chronic alcoholic call ten times in a night just to breath into the phone.
Nuisance callers to emergency services are plentiful and range from annoying to angering to sad. They’re definitely not going to go away any time soon. As long as there is someone answering that phone 24/7, people are going to call the number even when it’s not necessary. Until society prioritizes and insists on more robust social and mental health services, people will continue to call with bizarre tales and conspiracy theories. Until then, all we can do is take a deep breath, support programs that send out appropriate professionals and keep answering the phone. Thankfully that’s one thing that 911 Dispatchers are good at-Keep on keepin’ on.