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It was a message from the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary on Wednesday that should be obvious to everyone: please use the 911 emergency number only for emergencies.

“The RNC are continuing to receive numerous calls on the 911 line that are not an emergency situation. The RNC would like to remind the public that the 911 phone number is for emergency purposes only,” the police news release read.

“If you wish to make a report to police or require police response that is not an emergency you are asked to call 729-8000 on the Northeast Avalon, 637-4100 in the Corner Brook Region and 944-7602 in the Labrador West Region.”

As the provincial government moves — albeit incredibly slowly — toward a province-wide 911

system, it’s worth thinking about what a success, and, in some instances, a failure, 911 has become.

It is an emergency clearing house, a number that even toddlers know and can use to get an instant connection with police, fire and emergency services.

For many Canadians, it’s the only police or fire number they know.

And that means it’s become a catch-all for instant contact, and that’s even before you start to factor in random phone calls to 911 caused by “pocket-dialing” — accidental calls made by cellphones in people’s pockets. The Milwaukee Police Department reports that it gets 10,000 pocket-dialed 911 calls every month — with 10 911 operators, that means some legitimate calls in the city are going to a recorded message. In Nova Scotia, 20 per cent of 911 calls are either pocket-dialed or non-emergencies. Emergency workers in that province have taken to pointing out that the fine for calling 911 without a bona fide emergency is $693.95, hoping that the financial impact will have an effect where common sense fails.

Then, there are problems like the one CBC reported on in January: “The Sarnia Police Service has received nearly 400 911 calls from the same cellphone number since Dec. 25. Police say the phone is most likely a Rogers customer and has no (Subscriber Identity Module) card. Police have a theory that someone received a new phone for Christmas and passed their old one off to their child without realizing that a 911 call can still be made on a cellphone with no SIM card or even no service.”

Then, there are calls that should never be made in the first place. Here are two recent calls made in Nova Scotia, according to one dispatcher: “We had a 911 call from a man who wasn’t sure if he needed medical attention because he was licked by a puppy. … We had a little boy call because he was terrified of a spider.”

In Wasilla, Alaska, the city brought in an ordinance to recover the cost of nuisance calls: “The ‘excessive police response’ ordinance targets people who call police more than eight times to their residence or more than 50 times to a commercial unit, which includes a hotel or apartment complex …,” the Anchorage Daily news reported this week.

The fact is, 911 is an incredibly valuable service — a single point of contact that is easily dialed and easily remembered. But it’s not for reporting motor vehicle accidents where no one is injured, lost dogs, or cats marooned on electrical poles.

Used properly, it lets skilled operators handle real emergency calls, letting them send emergency resources where they are needed.

Used improperly, it can be a waste of everyone’s time.

Organizations: Milwaukee Police Department, CBC, Sarnia Police Service

Geographic location: Northeast Avalon, Nova Scotia, Labrador West Region Wasilla, Alaska Anchorage

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Recent comments

  • It shouldn't be a joke.
    June 26, 2014 - 12:13

    We have kids help line, God bless them and open line which is a lot of digits for an adult to remember. I believe it is a common expectation that 9-1-1 receive a whole host of weird calls, as this editorial covers, that could be passed of to a work term student. Uncommon sensibilities, pocket dialers, all these could be passed to a student for filtering and sold to Tosh.O or Codco if funny enough, or seriously, possibly save someone who is having a stroke-out, babbling like a crankster, a call from a confused child, etc. I take GREAT exception to solving this Bell Rogers TELUS problem with threats of (Tely-tone) fines the cost of a three year phone contract. I'm not a huge fan of Public Enemy, but I am getting the joke now. I believe this is a phone company issue at root, tech at phone level can lower the # of pocket dials, and exchange systems are so robust now, one worker could handle the rest of the seems-like-nothing's and "I just got into the dandelions-should I take Benadryl?" buzz them off to the health line? but yes, the fine, to clarify for Tely, is for crying wolf, and not for panicking, or overreacting by USING YOUR PHONE you pay hundreds of dollars for, if not thousands. Even if the 911 caller merely says, sorry my mistake, it is not a waste, it is a drill for that citizen, not a shame to think you need help. If it is, the system is broke at the core. Is "10 911 a Kabbalistic message, or does it mean Old Milwalkee is broke? Maybe VOCM-Bell Aliant can promote dial 740 to get Paddy Daley, for to take the slack off of the "is your refridgerator running" and "what colour tie are you wearing" types of benign tricksters and mundane voyeurs. If the same ghost phone calls 50 times, claiming to "see dead people" and then snicker, let the work term student or Rogers IT figure it out. A Citizen: "I can't find my government." | Adults help line: "Sir. I need you to calm down Sir, your government is buried in legislation, please remain calm. I'm putting you through to The Centre for Law and Democracy mobile hospice on Confederation Hill. Please hold the line."