"Is this 911? I have an emergency to report! I'm having a heart attack!"
Predictably, all people who call 911 do not have genuine emergencies like this one to report.I heard an interesting network news account suggesting that the use of 911 for many people nationwide has become trivial, ineffective and not what it was intended to be. It appears that numerous people clog the line in order to get help with mundane matters that do not qualify as emergencies.
Some just want a ride. Others call two or three times a week for non-emergency matters - like a hang nail.
Emergency personnel suggested the need for an education campaign to teach the general public the real purpose for 911. One even went so far as to suggest that we ought to categorize it in the same way as we do informational campaigns about drug use.
"Just say NO to 911!"
I wondered to what extent the same problem exists locally, but I wasn't sure whom to call. The telephone directory was not helpful, so I finally held my breath and dialed 911 - fully expecting to be chewed out once the true purpose of my call was discerned.
When I got a woman's voice I hurriedly told her that I was interested in the abuse of 911 and would like to know more about it - even if I had abused it myself. Fortunately, she was understanding and just chuckled before referring me to another number.
Tammy Bithell, an information systems supervisor for public safety communications, was happy to talk to me. She said the main reason that 911 is used so many times when another number would be more appropriate is that it is free. "If you are using a pay phone, you need no quarter."
Yes, she said, there are numerous trivial calls, or at least those that cannot be accurately labeled emergencies.
"Some people call if they need help getting into their cars if they have just locked themselves out. To a lot of people that is a genuine emergency. Many kids call 911, then hang up and run. We get at least five to 10 kids a day who have no emergency to report."
There are also a number of what Bithell calls "continuous callers, people who are usually hypochondriacs who call over and over again. A lot of lonely people call to get someone to talk to. But our biggest problem is kids calling on a pay phone and hanging up."
"Our second-biggest problem is the fact that there are 10,000 cellular phones in the valley and 911 is free. That is a problem. We get tons of those calls."
In November, our local 911 logged two cellular calls, 174 in December, 276 in January, and 500 in February - representing an enormous increase.
"These people just automatically call 911 if they see an accident."
Then there are the "abandoned calls," people who dial it and then hang up before we can capture the line. According to Bithell, "A lot of those are cordless phones with low batteries or kids playing on the phone. When that happens, we have to check it - and sometimes it pays off. We often find someone who is down, who is suffering in some way. We always send someone out to check and have found several heart attack victims."
Bithell says that a lot of people call to talk to a detective. "For that we ask them to call a business line."
Then there are naive people who actually program 911 into their phones and then hang up. Bithell has a hard time understanding why someone would have a need to program such a short, easy number, but they do.
"They don't realize that if they are just programming their phone, they still get us. We answer in less than 3 seconds. The problem is inherent in the system. When we lose someone, we make every effort possible to find out where the number is and to make sure that the people who made the calls are OK."
The problems notwithstanding, Tammy Bithell is not ready for an advertising campaign that says "No to 911" - but she is worried about the increasing number of non-emergency calls.
So next time you dial 911, make sure it's an emergency.