Abusing the System

  • The Greater Harris County PSAP in Texas reports that about 16 percent of all 911 calls are non-emergencies.
  • If you call by mistake, don't just hang up! PSAPs have a policy that the call-taker needs to call you back to confirm that there's no emergency. Hanging up just wastes more time on your non-emergency and ties up a line that could be needed by someone with a real crisis.
  • Intentional abuses and mistake calls resulting in a hang up are considered prank calls and in most areas are illegal. They typically result in a fine if the PSAP decides to pursue the matter.

911 Mistakes

­Call-takers need to be able to handle a tremendous variety of issues with patience and expertise. They receive training in crisis response not only in terms of demeanor, but also in crisis management tools and in the actual things that need to happen when police, fire and paramedics respond to an emergency. The 9-1-1 call-takers know what they need to ask in order to get the first responders there safely and fully equipped to handle the situation. Further training may involve:

  • 9-1-1 technology and equipment
  • police, fire and EMS procedures
  • questioning techniques
  • hazardous materials (what are they, where might they be and how would the caller be able to identify them)
  • legal liability issues
  • radio verbalization
  • cross-cultural issues (knowing what to expect and how to respond to callers from different cultural backgrounds)
  • stress management

­Even with extensive training, call-taker mistakes happen. And when the mistake is regarding a 9-1-1 call, the consequences can be devastating. One instance of 9-1-1 human error that received national attention is that of the 9-1-1 calls made by a five-year-old boy in Detroit in February 2006. Robert Turner called 9-1-1 when his mom, Sherrill Turner, collapsed from heart problems. The call-taker thought he was making a prank call and asked for an adult, and when Robert said he couldn't get an adult on the phone, the call-taker said she'd send help and hung up. But help didn't arrive. Three hours later, his mom still unconscious, Robert called 9-1-1 again. This time, a different call-taker answered, but it was the same result -- the call-taker thought it was a kid playing around, and she told him he'd get in trouble if he kept it up. Robert got scared and hung up. His mom died, although no one is sure exactly when. Both operators have been indicted on charges of willful neglect of duty and could face jail time. Robert's family is filing a wrongful death suit against the city because they believe that if the first operator had properly responded to Robert's call, Sherrill Turner would still be alive.

Not all call-taker mistakes are so devastating and unimaginable, but the fact is, when someone calls 9-1-1 and the person who picks up is not on the ball, bad things are going to happen. In Astoria, Oregon, in October 2005, a call-taker dismissed a call reporting a fire -- she simply asserted there was no fire, that it was just "the play of light in the rain and fog." It wasn't until another person called 9-1-1 15 minutes later to report the same blaze that firefighters were dispatched to the area, and by that time there was nothing they could do.

It's likely that most call-taker mistakes can be attributed to stress. Handling life-threatening emergencies all day is not an easy task, and call-takers can experience severe job-related stress issues. Some eventually suffer from critical incident stress syndrome (CISS), a condition something like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but it affects people who are constantly close to and intricately involved in other people's massive crises and tragedies. CISS can cause symptoms like severe anxiety, nightmares and an inability to cope with stressful situations in daily life. Most PSAPs offer not only training in stress management, but also have psychologists or social workers available for call-takers who need help dealing with the stress of their job.

For more information on 9-1-1 and related topics, check out the links on the next page.