What is Responsible 911 Use?

Pardon this very off topic rant, but this is something that irritates me to know end.

I was reading up on the Washington state NRA license plate bill, when I noticed an ad sponsored by King County to remind citizens to use 911 responsibly. What does that even mean beyond the obvious stories of idiots?

I pose the question because I’ve had several questionable experiences with 911 over the course of my life, and I try to do the right thing.

One of the first times that I had problems with 911 was when I encountered a massive car fire on the Beltway in Virginia. I slowed down, but continued on to my exit which was very near the fire. I called 911. I had to call six times before I didn’t get a busy signal. When I didn’t get a busy signal, I was told to hold, had to wait through several messages, then I finally had it ring three more times before I got an operator. It’s a damn good thing I saw the people from the car on the side of the road watching their car go up in flames instead of actually trapped in the car. By this time, there were still no emergency vehicles on the scene. In theory, that was an emergency. In practice, the operator acted quite annoyed with the fact that I was reporting a massive vehicle fire on a major commuting route.

Another time, I called the regular operator after discovering I had been shorted change by a Delaware tollbooth worker just as I pulled away. I tried to get the number to the relevant agency, and was finally transferred. After insisting that I was clearly mistaken and was making outrageous charges against their top notch employees, they told me I needed to call 911. It was $10 that I will (giving the benefit of the doubt) assume was mistakenly not included with my change because I paid in an unexpectedly high denomination. I was irritated, but not ready to scream that it was a criminal emergency. They absolutely refused to take my report, and insisted this was a 911 matter. I called 911, apologized, and explained that I was told to call by a state agency even though it was not a life threatening emergency. They actually said that the agency was correct! What the heck? Why is 911 handling these sorts of complaints? So, I gave them the information, and they took it down. A couple of months later, I received a check for $10 from Delaware. I would have rather they kept the $10 and reconsidered appropriate use of emergency numbers.

Various other times, I’ve been told to call in order to report debris in the road and other things. I thought that was the purpose for non-emergency numbers to law enforcement and other related agencies. Apparently, I am mistaken.

So, I guess my question for King County and readers who work in this field, what exactly is responsible use of 911? When there are “flames shooting into the sky” emergencies, I’m treated like it’s burden to answer the phone, and when it’s not, I’m greeted with enthusiastic operators ready to chase down my $10 like there’s no tomorrow.

19 thoughts on “What is Responsible 911 Use?”

  1. What you are experiencing is the different standards of 911 systems. My county here in Georgia (Cobb) has qualified for the top level. They are set up to accept all calls and will route the request to the appropriate agency. Its basically a one number call for county services. They’ll even give you directions if you are lost. Their system is so good that other localities use them as backup.

    I learned this first hand via my participation with the Citizen’s Public Safety Academy.

  2. Let me say, after working for large SEPA county and being involved for months in a 911 center move, you get some real crazies.

    People call in to report:
    Earthquakes, snow, and heavy rain.
    Other people in the apartment building stealing water when the pressure is low.
    Conspiracies and city people invading the suburbs
    The trash truck is making too much noise.
    Someone is outside my 8th floor window, trying to steal the AC window unit.
    The paperboy look suspicious.
    I need an ambulance, I have a toothache

    These were all real calls. The center we moved got more than 350,000 calls a year on the 911 line.

  3. I forwarded your post to someone who has a King County dispatcher for a spouse.

    Another dispatcher I know (I think she works in Snohomish County, just north of King County) in Washington once told me of some guy who would call 911 just to hear a female voice. Apparently he didn’t have a credit card for the phone sex line and 911 adequately met his “needs”.

    For the complete story see my post here.

  4. Check out the blog Nee Naw for a taste of the crazy people who waste the time of 911 operators.

  5. To use your example, I think 911 easily qualifies for any non-structural roadway hazard such as new debris, flooding, or anything that could cause a driver to act unpredictably or suddenly.

    Small or growing potholes on a low speed local road would be non-emergency, but a tire-trapping pothole on a state highway that is causing vehicles to swerve lanes and wasn’t there yesterday is definitely a 911 call.

    I probably would not have called 911 for toll collection issue, even if told by another state agency to do so. They’re not on the hook for an abuse of 911 charge if they giving you bad advice. You are. There’s always another way to reach the county/state dispatcher.

    I keep the county non-emergency number in my cell phone just to avoid calling 911 for marginal issues. The people who answer it are in the same room as 911 with all the same resources but can prioritize the call better.

    1. These things never happen in my home county, so I can’t program the numbers of every county I might ever visit into my phone. Like I said, the Delaware 911 operator told me that I called the right number, and she took the full report that resulted in my $10 being returned. I felt bad about it, but she swore that I was in the right for it. I figured that in a worst case scenario, I would let the emergency operators know that the toll agency was giving out that advice.

      1. Also to your point, I’ve called in car and brush fires on the interstate probably once a year and every time the MSP operators have been super courteous and polite, saying “We’ve already got it, thanks for calling.” I think your call-taker was to blame for the attitude, not you.

  6. There are clearly different standards in different parts of the country. When I lived in MN 911 was something you only called in a dire emergency otherwise there was a non-emergency number you could call that we would all use. I never dialed 911 while I lived in the state and am not sure if it is still that way today or if it is more like Dallas 911 now.

    Down here in Dallas they tell us to call 911 for pretty much anything. They seem to have plenty of operators as I have never gotten a busy signal and they answer right away. The police down here will tell you to call 911 if you seem someone suspicious. So basically call for anything. I was very uncomfortable with that at first until they really pushed it at a neighborhood crime watch meeting. They said it all goes into the computer and is routed by priority. So if it is a non-emergency situation they will get to it if they aren’t busy with something more pressing.

    So I have called when I saw a couple of people that looked shady out in the alley doing who knows what. I thought they might be trying to break into my shed. But I always start the call with this isn’t an emergency but this is what I am seeing going on. They always ask if you want the officer to stop in to talk to you after they investigate which I always say no that isn’t necessary. When I called about the alley the police were there in about 90 seconds. According to my neighbor it was just people smoking weed out there. Another time I called because I needed to file a police report for a broken window on my wife’s car. It took them about 3 hours to come out (late on a Friday night) as I assume they had real emergencies to deal with. When they finally get caught up they came out gave me a police report (which I needed for insurance), and offered to send a crime lab vehicle if I wanted to dust for prints (which I declined).

    So I would guess the use of the 911 system maybe has something to do with how modern the system is and how well the calls are routed as well as the number of operators that they have.

    1. Just recently, in Dakota County (MN), they have replaced the non-emergency number with 911. See a stray dog? Call 911. Neighbor’s too loud? Call 911. Man with a gun shooing stray dog and loud neighbor? Call 911.

      Seems to further the ‘gov’t services will feed/cloth/save me/keep me from being annoyed’ mentality.

  7. The local standard is to call 911 for any hazard, suspicious person or activity, or to report a crime. Which seems reasonable. I have reported cars on fire, Vette’s in the woods, a wrong way driver who wiped out a kid from Delaware, a guy trying to commit suicide by jumping in front of an 18 wheeler, a logging crew dropping trees across the interstate, an armored car that was running red lights, and a few other trivial things. My calls have always been taken promptly and were apparently appreciated.

    Crimes? No, I have never had a reason to report a crime. Of course, as ugly as I am most people lose interest in robbing me. They are afraid of the ugly rubbing off. It might, at that.


  8. I actually think this comment thread raises another question: How is one to know what each locality considers “appropriate” use of their 911 system if they vary so widely? This is the kind of nightmare that issues like preemption work out with gun laws, but this is just another side of the “being a good citizen” coin when it comes to things like reporting hazards, problematic drivers, or non-emergency problems.

  9. After over 21 years as an emergency responder, I can tell you that I have responded to a lot of stupid 911 calls.
    – The woman who called 911 for menstrual cramps
    – The woman who called because she didn’t know how to program the new thermostat for the air conditioner
    – The man whose toilet wouldn’t stop running
    – Several thousand times for homeless bums who called because they wanted a free meal/drugs/were lonely
    – People with the flu
    – People who needed a ride to their house, which happened to be near the hospital, and figured that an ambulance ride is cheaper than a taxi (they actually said that)
    I could go on, but I think you get the point

  10. I have called 9-1-1 about a dozen times in my life. I have yet to see a single response for any of the incident calls.

    At least one of which was of such concern that they sent three police cruisers after the event to collect the police report.

    My original call while the indicident was transpiring and there was potential for physical harm resulted in the following response “It’s New Haven, whad’ya expect us to do about it!”

    More recently, I was following behind a swerving mini-van as I crossed half of York county. I called 9-1-1 twice to which no response ever occurred. Who knows what would have happened if I had not remained behind the vehicle flashing it every time it nearly ran off the road or into another car. The police should have responded.

    Oh, but they have plenty of time to waste on inspection stickers, speed traps, stop signs in the middle of the boonies.

  11. 911 seems to be changing everywhere, and at different paces in different locations.
    The concept of a 911 system as a central call location for all county services DOES make some sense, especially with the proliferation of cell phones, and people calling from places where they are unable to access county service lines. The trick becomes sorting and prioritizing. It sounds like Cobb Co. GA is doing it right.
    Until all systems are efficient and smoothly run (Oh wait, government agencies, I don’t expect this anytime soon) it’s in our best interest to assume ’emergency only’ unless we A – know otherwise, or B – are directed by other services to do so.

    1. Am I misremembering, or is there a push on to set up a national non-emergency x11 line, nectar of high mobility and cell phones?

  12. Let me throw out a contrary concept: at one point do you change your attitude from being responsible (“being a good citizen”) to prioritizing your safety?

    I.e. how much of this is a subset of “Don’t Talk to the Police” (… ever, or so I’ve heard, haven’t watched the video).

    Or more closely focused on our issue, what do you think of Alan Korwin’s “Dial 911 and go directly to jail” thesis? (After You Shoot: Your gun’s hot. The perp’s not. Now what?)

    Yeah, I know, if enough people adopt these sorts of attitudes civilization crumbles. Then again, you could say that if it’s going to crumble anyway, you need to keep you and yours as safe as possible during the process. And how you answer will of course depend on where you live.

  13. Called once from pay phone (back in the days before cell phones) to report a driver going wrong way on interstate hwy. Was told to hang up and dial local police dept.

    Now, if it’s a highway issue, I dial *HP for the State Patrol. Had to call a few months ago to report a semi that was doing 90+ and passing cars while driving in the emergency lane.

    Half of the SP cars I see parked off the road are empty. I call ’em “Scarecrows”.

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