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9-1-1 widely misused
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Emergency 911 dispatch centers around the country have not kept pace with the increasing population and greater demands for service. This fact, coupled with a distinct trend of people misusing the system, has created a dangerous problem for those who really need emergency medical assistance or immediate service from fire or police.

The 911 system has been around for decades, and during its existence, it went from being regarded as an "emergency only" phone number, to one that has now become widely misused and abused. For example, 911 is regularly dialed by persons seeking addresses and directions. The number is also frequently used as a substitute for the 411 information system. The list of common abuses is lengthy.

It is not unusual for 911 callers to request fire and ambulance for routine, non-emergency medical situations like having stomach cramps, the flu, a fever, a sprained ankle or other similar conditions. A while ago, Ceres Fire personnel were dispatched on a call of person having chest pains as a potential heart attack situation. I was with the fire crew at the time. When we arrived, we found a woman sitting on a couch, smoking a cigarette, who calmly told us that she felt like she might have a temperature and needed her basic vitals checked. The firefighters obliged her request, and then left to handle a real emergency. Needless to say, this was a gross abuse of the 911 and emergency medical response system, yet events like this happen often.

Emergency 911 dispatch centers have only a limited number of 911 phone lines. Even if the number of lines were increased, there would not be enough dispatchers to handle them. And when all 911 lines are tied up simultaneously, the next person needing emergency assistance will hear a busy signal. In some of the larger metropolitan areas the misuse of 911 is so prevalent that callers often are placed on hold for five or ten minutes and sometimes even longer. Imagine if you were calling because a loved one is dying from a heart attack or someone has broken into your home with the intent to injure or kill you, only to hear a busy signal when you dial 911. And chances are that most of the calls that are tying up the lines are for non-emergency situations like those described above!

Examples of what not to use 911 for are "cold" crimes with no suspects present. Calling 911 to find out the police department's non-emergency number is also not acceptable. In general, any kind of event or crime that is not life threatening or that does not present an immediate danger to property should be handled via the non-emergency phone number, which can be found in the phone directory for each jurisdiction. Another problem that plagues the dispatch centers occurs when there is a power outage, explosion, thunder or other situation that causes innumerable calls to come into the center with people wanting to know "what's going on?" Other service numbers should be used as appropriate instead of calling the 911 center in the aforementioned instances.

The advent of cell phones has been a real boost for public safety, in that callers do not hesitate to report crimes, collisions, thefts and medical emergencies in progress. But the abuses of the system also create an enormous burden on the 911 system. Callers should not hesitate to use their cell phones for life-safety purposes, or to report drunk drivers, traffic collisions or the various other road hazards and threats to property -- but to call for directions or other non-emergency matters creates substantial delays and ties up the system. 911 calls that are made from cell phones are all handled by California Highway Patrol dispatchers, and while that system is a good one, it cannot handle the many non-emergency calls that come in. Again, when the system overloads, the ones who suffer are those with true emergencies. We can only ask that you think twice before using 911 for any other purpose than an emergency. The next person who suffers as a result of getting a busy signal from 911 may well be you, a loved one or a friend.

California Penal Code, Section 653y, was enacted by the state legislature to stop abuses of the 911 system. Specifically, this section states that "any person who knowingly allows the use or who uses the 911 telephone system for any reason other than because of an emergency is guilty of an infraction..." The legal definition of the word "emergency" is "...any condition in which emergency services will result in the saving of a life, a reduction in the destruction of property, quicker apprehension of criminals, or assistance with potentially life-threatening medical problems, a fire, a need for rescue, an imminent potential crime, or a similar situation in which immediate assistance is required."

The 911 system is one of the best modern inventions, but its future viability hinges on how citizens use it. We also recognize the inconvenience of having to look up non-emergency phone numbers, especially when driving a motor vehicle. To that end, a few dozen American cities have implemented a "311" system to allow for routine, non-emergency calls. But like the 911 emergency system, 311 will take years to implement. 911 has been around for some 35 years, yet many towns and cities across the nation still do not have it. Because 311 does not fulfill a life-safety role, it will be a much lower priority for lawmakers than the emergency 911 system. In the meantime, we should all be protective of 911 and use it exclusively for what it is intended. My hope is that none of you will have to use 911 at all, and that your lives, surroundings and possessions are safe at all times.