911 system should not be misused

The 911 emergency reporting system has existed in our area for some 25 years, and has proven to be one of the most convenient and effective mechanisms for reporting crimes, fires, medical emergencies, traffic collisions and other urgent matters. The 911 system was intended for true 'emergencies,' which can be subjective, and therein lays the problem. In Ceres alone, the emergency dispatch center handles close to a thousand 911 calls every month.

Nationwide, the 911 system has become overwhelmed with the kind of calls that it was never intended handle. This has resulted in significant delays in the time it takes dispatchers to answer calls for true emergency situations. It is estimated that of the hundreds of thousands of 911 calls received daily throughout the nation, only about 15 percent of them are for legitimate emergencies featuring life and death situations or immediate threats to persons or property.

There are so many non-qualifying 911 calls made every day that not only do they tie up critical phone lines, but dispatchers become overworked and prone to making mistakes in handling real emergencies.

On any given emergency dispatch center shift, the dispatchers can expect to receive calls from people requesting directions, complaining about city services and requesting advice for civil matters. Children playing with the phone are a problem, as are unlocked cell phones in purses or pockets that 'auto-dial' 911 (also known as 'butt-dialing'). Misdialed numbers, like the prefix 011, which is used for international calling, or 411, frequently leads to 911 being dialed instead.

Explosions or thunder, power outages or when there is a traffic collision, generally can cause all of the dispatch center phones to start ringing. Dispatchers can expect dozens of calls reporting the same incident. Dispatch phones also ring when traffic signals are not working. False alarms, of course, are also a major concern in that not only do they reduce the availability of 911 lines, but also consume valuable fire and police resources.

The misuse of the 911 system has become so common that people have resorted to calling it to report illegal parking, barking dogs, loud music complaints, lost property and minor 'cold' crime cases. Some of these problems are unavoidable, but much can be done to reduce their frequency.

All too often, 911 is dialed for non-emergency health situations such as headaches, fevers, stomachaches, flu-like symptoms, etc. Just a few weeks ago, Ceres Fire Department personnel were dispatched to an 'emergency' call, only to arrive and find out that it was for someone with a fever and headache. Firefighters are trained and intended to provide assistance in cases of life-threatening emergencies.

Typically, such emergencies involve severe bleeding, difficulty breathing, unconsciousness or altered level of consciousness, broken bones, or other serious injuries and medical conditions that one reasonably believes constitutes an immediate threat to life. Calling 911 for non-emergency situations can result in valuable, limited resources unnecessarily responding to persons who are experiencing problems that they should be seeing their primary physician for. These kinds of abuses lead to delayed fire department responses in cases where the emergency services are truly needed.

Some people exaggerate the seriousness of events to justify their 911 call, or to receive expedited service. This became a real problem in Los Ángeles where police responses were particularly slow. 911 callers would (falsely) claim that shots were fired, resulting in automatic code three police responses. This, of course, is illegal and unnecessarily jeopardizes the public as the police speed to the 'emergency.'

Most all police and fire agencies have non-emergency phone numbers which should be used for routine requests for service or other kinds of business. Local governments and state agencies that provide public safety services exist for the sole purpose of serving the public; so, this effort to eliminate non-emergency calls to the 911 system is not about reducing services. To the contrary, we seek to improve the 911 function by using it specifically for bona fide emergencies.

Art De Werk is the Chief of Public Safety in Ceres