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Phony 911 Calls Slow Response to True Emergencies

August 07, 2008 09:00 AM
by Isabel Cowles
An increase in false alarms is putting stress on emergency response systems nationwide.

30-Second Summary

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A number of bizarre emergency phone calls have some civilians laughing and police scrambling: one man called 911 when Subway improperly prepared his sandwich, another called 911 when asked to do the laundry, and another called when he could not find a taxi cab.

While fake calls to police may seem funny, authorities nationwide warn that false alarms hamper their ability to respond to true emergencies.

According to MSNBC, “in cities large and small, police officials and system administrators warn that 911 systems are being choked with clueless, frivolous, even prank, calls.”

Some false alarms are more sinister than others: firefighters in Minneapolis have suited up three times to put out nonexistent fires announced by the same caller. In Nashville, Tenn.,  Office of Emergency Management spokeswoman Amanda Sluss said, “Bomb threats, robberies in progress; a child [saying] they are being held hostage,”  are among calls the emergency system has received.

False calls have caused some states to adopt stricter punishments for 911 pranksters: in 2005, Hawaii made such calls a misdemeanor.

Another debilitating element of fake emergency calls is that some 911 operators assume that real emergency calls are actually pranks. In 2006, police waited three hours to respond to a five-year old boy’s 911 call for help after his mother collapsed. The dispatcher told him, “You shouldn't be playing on the phone.” The woman died before the police came.

Phony 911 calls clog emergency lines

MSNBC reports a recent proliferation of phony emergency calls. According to the network, “Officials say decades of education programs meant to emblazon the numbers 9, 1 and 1 in every American’s memory may have worked too well. Because police have to respond to almost every call in case it’s a real emergency, people have figured out that a quick call to 911 guarantees action.”
A Minneapolis caller falsely reported a house fire three times in one month. The caller identified the same address twice and in another call, he named a house across the street. The calls have caused Minneapolis fire companies to use their resources for nothing. “It's been a big nuisance,” said Sgt. Sean McKenna. “We dispatch 10 fire companies, three engines, two ladders, rescue squads and two chief officers, that's 25-30 people. You can’t just dispatch one fire truck and hope it gets there. We act if it is a real fire."
An increase in false 911 phone calls has hampered the Nashville police’s ability to respond to real emergencies. According to the local NBC affiliate, “What makes the false calls worse is that many of them are coming in overnight when police manpower is already at a premium.”

911 crackdowns and failures

In 2005, Hawaii established a law that made it a misdemeanor for anyone to make false 911 calls. “Police have the ability to track 911 calls from land lines, which has led to a decrease in the number of false reports. Police will soon be able to quickly trace cellular calls,” the Honolulu Advertiser reported at the time.
In 2007, A bleeding woman at Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital in Los Angeles died in the emergency room after 911 dispatchers refused to contact paramedics or an ambulance to take her to another facility.
A 5 year-old boy called 911 in 2006 when his mother collapsed on the kitchen floor. “Now put her on the phone before I send the police out there to knock on the door and you gonna be in trouble,” the 911 operator told him. According to the Associated Press, “Detroit police spokesman James Tate said it was at least an hour before authorities arrived, but he said he did not have details. By that time, the boy’s mother had died, he said.”
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