Dispatchers: 911 Abuse is More Serious Than You Think

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When your life is in danger, there is always one phone number you can call for help.

Day or night, 911 dispatchers are there to answer your call. They help catch criminals and send first responders to those in need.

It's vital work that helps keep our communities safe.

But not every call to 911 is an emergency.

Like a call about loud neighbors:

Dispatcher: 911 what’s the address of your emergency?
Caller: Hi, I’m not sure who to call, but there’s some seriously loud people on (redacted) Way, I think it is?
Dispatcher: Is it a noise complaint?
Caller: Yes, I think so.
Dispatcher: OK, you have to call the non-emergency, OK? 911 is for life and death emergencies.

Or help to find phone numbers:

Dispatcher: 911 what is your emergency?
Caller: Yes, I have a question. What is the non-emergency number? For the sheriff’s department?
Dispatcher: OK, please call 411 to get phone numbers. We need to keep 911 lines open for life and death emergencies.

"We've seen a huge increase in 911 calls that are unfounded, or pocket dials, or misuse of 911 services," Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department dispatcher Anthony Cathey said.

Cathey says he and his co-workers take thousands of calls a day. Many of them don't involve life and death situations, or crimes in progress.

He says these calls may seem innocent, but they can put other people at risk.

"It’s a very serious problem,” Cathey said. “Because every 911 call that’s not a legitimate emergency is taking away a dispatcher from attending to a real emergency."

Part of the problem is technology. More people are carrying cell phones than ever before, which leads to issues like pocket dials.

"Any call that we have to respond to affects our entire system," said Chris Vestal with the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District. "When we send a unit to a call, that's another unit that's unable to respond to perhaps another higher priority call later on."

Vestal says first responders are also seeing an increase in low-priority calls.

By law, they have to respond to every call they receive but sometimes it's not easy for first responders to get the caller the help they need.

“A good example would be someone who’s calling who might need dialysis. But they don’t have access to a dialysis clinic in their area,” Vestal said. “We’re not able to take someone to a dialysis facility. And not all the emergency departments that we take people to have the ability to provide that right away."

Vestal and Cathey agree -- they want you to call 911 if you’re having an emergency. That's what 911 is for, but they encourage everyone to think before picking up the phone.

In California, it’s a misdemeanor to call 911 if it’s not an emergency.

In fact, The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department says they have arrested people who repeatedly call 911 for non-emergencies.

The non-emergency number for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department is 916-874-5115.

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