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911 systems choking on non-emergency calls

in cities large and small, police officials and system administrators warn that 911 systems are being choked with clueless, frivolous, even prank, calls. Some are fighting back.
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Which of these is an emergency?

  • A Subway sandwich shop in Florida leaves the mayo and mustard off a customer’s order.
  • A Texas man can’t get a cab.
  • A Tennessee man’s stepfather keeps nagging him to do the laundry.

To hear callers to 911 emergency lines tell it, all are.

Eddie Mitchell, a 911 dispatcher in Rancho Cordova, Calif., near Sacramento, likes to tell the story of the caller who demanded to know why the Transportation Department hadn’t mowed the grass. Another wanted to know how to use his cell phone.

“We’ve had people call in asking us to bring them milk,” Mitchell said.

Darrell DeBusk, a spokesman for the Knoxville, Tenn., police, can top that. “A few years ago. an individual called 911 wanting an officer to drive through McDonald’s and bring him a hamburger,” DeBusk said.

Those calls may be funny, but in cities large and small, police officials and system administrators warn that 911 systems are being choked with clueless, frivolous, even prank, calls.

In California, for example, as many as 45 percent of the more than 8 million cell phone calls to 911 each year are for non-emergencies, officials said; in Sacramento, it could be as high as 80 percent. Those calls block the lines for callers who really need urgent help.

“You’ve got a true emergency with somebody out there — that there’s a shooting or something — then those officers are not able to respond to that emergency call, because they’re taking care” of callers who abuse 911 lines, said Jennifer Wilson, who has worked in the 911 center in Knox County, Tenn., for 16 years.

‘We’re here for a purpose’
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.

Like Reginald Peterson.

Peterson ordered a Spicy Italian Sub at a Subway store in Jacksonville, Fla., last week. He ordered it with “the works.” To his mind, it didn’t come with the works.

“He tasted his sandwich, and it didn’t have mayonnaise or mustard on it, so he became upset,” said Tammy Morris, a manager at the store.

Witnesses inside the store said Peterson started screaming. Then he went outside to call 911, asking for help in having his sandwich made to his satisfaction. A short time later, he called again to complain that police still hadn’t shown up.

So they did, and they arrested Peterson on charges of making false 911 calls.

“It’s unbelievable what people get upset about now days,” Morris said.

Or like Kevin Waits.

Waits called a cab to his home in Waco, Texas. When it didn’t show up, he called 911. The dispatcher told him to call a taxi service.

Waco police Officer Steve Anderson said Waits grew more and more frustrated as he couldn’t get a cab. So he called 911 again. And again. Eventually, he called 15 times.

When police finally went to his apartment, they found a cab waiting for Waits — who didn’t have the $26 fare.

Waits was charged with harassment and theft of service.

Or like the unidentified 19-year-old man who called 911 in Knoxville because his stepfather wouldn’t stop nagging him to do the laundry or wash the dishes.

According to the transcript of the call, the man told the operator: “Why can’t he be a grown man and do it hisself instead of whine about it and pick and pack and fight about it?”

Wilson, the Knoxville dispatcher, said, “I hate to use the term ‘babysitter,’ but we’re here for a purpose, and that is not our purpose.”

27,000 prank calls to 911
It’s especially galling when the caller is someone who obviously should know better. Take Gabe Pacheco, a lieutenant with the fire and rescue squad in Monroe County, Fla.

Pacheco was put on paid administrative leave last month after he called 911 to report a non-existent boating accident. The sheriff’s report said Pacheco wanted to cover up the fact that he was going to be late for a shift change.

But the worst are the prank callers, who set out to tie up police and emergency resources for kicks.

In February, police in Hayward, Calif., arrested a man and charged him with making more than 27,000 phony 911 calls to Hayward police and the California Highway Patrol. He would grunt and make other sounds described only as “bodily noises,” mutter in a disguised voice and repeatedly press beep tones from the touchpad.

The caller, identified as John Triplette, 45, “completely overwhelmed our system,” said Desi Calzada, manager of the Hayward Communications Center. “He delayed the answering of other 911 calls because we were answering his.”

According to police, Triplette said he made the calls “because it’s free.”

Don Aaron, a spokesman for the Nashville Metro police, said it’s called “joyriding.”

“It’s a joy call to 911,” Aaron said. “What they don’t understand is that the call takers at 911 take these calls very seriously. The police department takes them very seriously.”

Some jurisdiction opt for penalties
So seriously that authorities are moving to crack down.

Last month, Ventura, Calif., began charging a per-incident fee for 911 calls. Residents can opt out of the charge by paying a recurring monthly fee, but if the don’t, every non-critical call to 911 will cost them $17.88.

“We get a few kids that play on the phone,” said Patty Chase, communications supervisor for Kern County Dispatch. “We get a few people that ask us strange questions, like when it’s going to stop raining and things that we couldn’t possibly answer.”

Some residents complained that the fee defeated the purpose of 911.

“I can’t believe that,” said Salomon Olvera Jr. “It’s really shocking to me. 911 is supposed to be an emergency phone number.”

Another opponent, James Courrangoiton, acknowledged that “they get a lot of crazy calls.” But, he said, “there’s got to be a better way of controlling that other than penalizing everybody.”

Last month, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law imposing a $50 fine for a second non-emergency 911 call. Penalties rise to $250 for the fourth call.

“One warning is sufficient,” said Assemblyman John Benoit, R-Palm Desert, who sponsored the bill. “This is not an appropriate use of 911. Don’t do it again.”