Non-emergency 9-1-1 Calls: The Problem and the Solution

by Colonel Earnest E. Ricci

You must have heard the whimsical story about the home ownerwhose roof
leaked. His solution to the problem was to place a bucket underthe stream of
water. When more leaks developed, he simply added more buckets.

Compare that to the action taken by a cellular 9-1-1 callprocessing agency I
read about recently: It seems that in a certain cellular servicearea,
dispatchers were deluged with inappropriate 9-1-1 calls. Callerswere
reporting everything and anything over the 9-1-1 cellularnetwork, much to the
chagrin of the personnel who answer 1,000 or more 9-1-1 cellularcalls each

Requests for directions, weather reports and traffic conditionsare examples of
calls which were not emergencies and which could have jeopardizedthe
processing of legitimate 9-1-1 emergency calls. What did thatagency do to
correct the potentially disastrous problem? They hired moredispatchers and
installed more telephone lines. They perpetuated the problemthrough
accommodation. Isn’t that much like placing buckets under aleaking roof?
To attempt to offer a logical explanation for why anyone wouldresort to the
“bucket” remedy, you would want to assume that theaction was intended to be
temporary–a transitional measure to be kept in place for theshort term while
positive long term corrective action was taking place. Similarly,in the public
safety communications field there may arise a need to invokeshort term
mitigative action while positive measures are planned andeffected to illuminate
the cause of the problem.

Apparently, in both scenarios, the assumption that the initialaction is intended
to be of short term duration and will be followed by a positiveresolution
would be false. In some cases, what should be transitionalbecomes permanent
and the real problem is never addressed.

Before we move to the resolution category, it would beinteresting to examine
the cause of the problem. Why do so many inappropriate 9-1-1calls end up in
the Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP)? For both cellular andland-line 9-
1-1 systems, the problem evolved from the inappropriate use ofthe seven-digit
emergency numbers which were used exclusively to convey publicsafety needs
before 9-1-1 was established. Most often, when the conversionfrom seven-
digit emergency numbers to the basic 9-1-1 emergency number waseffected,
law enforcement agencies assumed, or were designated the role ofinitial 9-1-1
call receiver. Fire and emergency medical 9-1-1 calls were thentransferred,
or relayed, to the respective service agencies for dispatch. Inthe cellular
category, the system originally served the highway userpopulation to a greater
extent, thus, State Police, or other highway patrol and countylaw enforcement
agencies assumed the role of cellular service agency.

Since at least 60% of all calls coming into the 9-1-1 PSAP arelaw
enforcement-related, one would expect the greater percentage ofinappropriate
calls to attach to the law enforcement service, and they do, butthe problem
transcends the law of averages. The ratio of inappropriate toappropriate calls
in the law enforcement emergency category far exceeds that offire and
medical. The problem seems to emerge from the absence of a public
understanding of what constitutes a law enforcement emergency.True, there
is little doubt about the physical conditions which generate theneed to request
fire or emergency medical services; they leave little tointerpretation. A fire
emergency exists whenever there is a fire. A medical emergencyexists
whenever there is substantial injury or illness. But in lawenforcement,
depending on the size of the force, the philosophy of the chiefexecutive, the
demands of the population served, or the general volume ofactivity,
departments will vary as to the service level ascribed todifferent activity in the
community. That level of service converts to public expectationsand forms a
basis for the public’s definition of law enforcement emergency.

For these reasons, among others, a high percentage ofnon-emergency call
processing activity was drawn to the law enforcementcommunications centers.
Consider also that in many pre-9-1-1 jurisdictions, one telephonenumber was
used to report both emergency and non-emergency law enforcementmatters.
The public was encouraged to call that number to report any andall incidents
or to request any and all services. In some cases, it was aconscious effort to
keep the call volume high perhaps to justify personnel levels. Asa result, no
barriers to what we now call 9-1-1 abuse were in place. Then camebasic 9-1-
1. Simply a substitution of emergency telephone numbers. Thatsubstitution
carried in tandem the old seven-digit emergency call abuses whichwere
inherent and deep rooted in the law enforcement emergencyreporting system.

The advent of Enhanced 9-1-1 with automatic locationidentification carried
emergency communications technology a giant step forward, butunfortunately
placing a capitol “E” in front of 9-1-1 did not freethe system of inappropriate
calls. Changing telephone numbers or improving communicationstechnology
was not intended to solve the problem of inappropriate calls.That problem is
rooted in the service delivery system and in the public’smisconception of what
constitutes a 9-1-1 emergency and therein lies the solution.Until the 9-1-1
call processing system is modified and the term “9-1-1emergency” is defined,
followed by a comprehensive public education program, theinappropriate 9-1-
1 call problem is destined to proliferate.

PSAP administrators must focus upon the real problem: theconditions which
cause inappropriate 9-1-1 calls, not the symptoms. They mustadopt a zero
tolerance policy for non-emergency 9-1-1 calls entering theoperations center.
Expanding the staff, the equipment, and the facility toaccommodate
inappropriate 9-1-1 calls is not in the best interest ofproviding effective
service to callers with legitimate 9-1-1 needs and is simply notwhat the tax-
paying supporters of the 9-1-1 emergency communications systemsare paying
for. When the public education objective is reached, severalwelcome changes
in PSAP activity will take place:

* Overall call processing activity will decrease.
* There will be more time to concentrate on and improve emergencycall
processing procedures (training).
* There will be less possibility for blocked 9-1-1 emergencycalls.
* 9-1-1 emergency calls will be answered immediately.
* Total response time to emergencies will decrease.
* Staffing levels will stabilize.
* The PSAP will become easier to manage and maintain.
* Working conditions will improve.
* Work attitudes will become positive.
* The quality of service will improve.
* The public will become more supportive of the organization andidentify
with its mission.

Now let’s get to the definition of a 9-1-1 emergency. Generally,a 9-1-1
emergency is any situation which requires the response of fire,police, or
emergency medical personnel immediately. If 9-1-1 is the numberto call for
emergencies requiring immediate law enforcement response, whatnumber does
one call for “lesser” emergencies which may not require”immediate”
response? It is often difficult to make a clear distinctionbetween an
emergency requiring immediate response and a condition whichholds that
potential; i.e. a disabled, occupied vehicle may not ordinarilyfit the
“immediate response” category but, depending upon thelocation of the
breakdown in relation to highway traffic, or crime potential inthe area, the
age and physical condition of the driver, weather conditions,etc., police may
want to respond immediately. That is only one example of manywhich
creates a definition problem for law enforcement agencies; aproblem which is
not as prevalent in the fire and emergency medical service.

Calls to 9-1-1 which fall in the gray area, or “lesser”emergencies, are really
not inappropriate calls and should not be classified as such.They should be
processed and prioritized in accordance with the policies andprocedures
established at each PSAP. Calls to 9-1-1 requesting road andtraffic
conditions, weather forecasts, directions, etc., are clearlyinappropriate 9-1-1
calls. Administrative calls which may be appropriate to a sectionor division
of the agency are inappropriate 9-1-1 calls. Along with thepublic education
package must come agency call processing adjustments, such as apublished
administrative number(s) for the agency. If you do provide apublished
administrative telephone number(s) and your 9-1-1 lines continueto be used
for non-emergency administrative matters, conduct a line loadstudy of your
administrative lines. Chances are that during normal businesshours, in
particular, your agency is generating more activity than theadministrative
line(s) can carry. If your callers are unable to get through onyour
administrative line(s), guess what number they will dial as analternative?

Call answering protocol within the PSAP is hard to prescribebecause of the
diversity of the systems and their varying responsibilities:Enhanced/Basic 9-1-
1; one step/multi-step; county-state/municipal jurisdiction;neutral/affiliated,
etc. However, the person(s) responsible for dispatching in the9-1-1 PSAP
should not also be the call taker(s) burdened with initial callprocessing in an
agency with moderate to heavy call volume. Administrative callsentering the
system by way of the published administrative number should beautomatically
directed to the appropriate office for service. Emergencytelecommunicators
should be in place to answer all calls entering the 9-1-1 PSAP,and direct all
inappropriate calls away from the 9-1-1 emergency dispatcher(s).

Non-emergency and administrative calls can be referred to ortransferred to
other telephone numbers and when appropriate the caller should becourteously
instructed on how to use the system properly. That internalpublic education
message delivered by the call taker may not be a quick fix, butit has a direct
impact on the user population which is creating the problem.

External public education should involve a diversity of deliveryagents and
mechanisms. Convince your telephone company’s public relationssection and
their cellular telephone counterparts to include a “when touse 9-1-1” message
in every telephone bill for a few months. The message may have agreater
impact if you mention how abuse of 9-1-1 could cost someone’slife, and will
certainly generate higher call processing costs. If you haveenacted legislation
prohibiting false 9-1-1 calls (if you have not, you should)include that in your
message. Encourage radio and TV stations to provide publicservice spots.
Include your message in AAA and ALA member newsletters. Sponsoressay
contests in the schools with the theme, “How to use 9-1-1properly.” Send
your crime/fire prevention officers out to the schools, talkshows, PTO
meetings, senior citizens centers; post the message on billboards, on busses,
on bumper stickers, in coloring books. Public education must bean ongoing
effort. It is the only means to the resolution of theinappropriate 9-1-1 call
problem–it’s cost effective and will work.

Colonel Earnest E. Ricci is executive director of the RhodeIsland Enhanced 9-
1-1 Uniform Emergency Telephone System.