Wrong number: Calls to 911 aren't always for emergencies

I never – let me knock on some wood here – have had to call 911. I’ve never been faced with that kind of a big emergency.

A lot of other people haven’t, either – but they call 911 anyway.

Have you noticed that in the past few years? It seems as if an increasing number of people, with a decreasing amount of common sense, have been using America’s most important phone number for some of the most trivial of life’s inconveniences.

Want some examples? Prepare for your head to hurt:

• In 2009, Latreasa Goodman called 911 three times in Fort Pierce, Fla., to complain that a McDonald’s restaurant couldn’t complete her food order because the restaurant had run out of McNuggets.

• In June, Rother McLennon of East Hartford, Conn., called a 911 dispatcher because the sandwich he ordered from a local deli wasn’t prepared the way he wanted. The deli said the caller ordered 14 sandwiches and refused to pay for them.

• In 2009, in suburban Cleveland, Andrew Mizsak called 911 to report that his 28-year-old son, who still lived at home in his parents’ basement, had an unusually messy room.

• Jean Fortune lighted up the 911 switchboard in Boynton Beach, Fla., a few years ago to complain that the Burger King restaurant he visited had run out of lemonade.

• Between May 2007 and February 2008, one person was blamed for placing an estimated 27,000 calls to 911 in Hayward, Calif. After tracing the cell phone, police arrested John Triplette. Why did he make all those calls? “Because it’s free,” he told police.

• In the Fort Worth, Texas, area a few years ago, a woman complained to 911 that a restaurant didn’t include enough shrimp in her take-out order of shrimp fried rice.

• In 2009 in Kissimmee, Fla., a distraught woman called a 911 dispatcher – OK, now my head’s really starting to hurt – to report that (sigh) she was locked inside her own car and couldn’t get out. The woman was saved after the dispatcher pointed out that you could lift a latch to unlock her driver’s-side door.

All this circles back to a central question I keep asking myself: Are Americans getting more stupid? Or are we just hearing about these insane 911 calls more often?

“It’s just more publicized because of the reason that they called,” Dominick Nutter told me. “I’m not going to say it happens any more or less frequently.”

Nutter is the director of Augusta’s 911 Emergency Services. Before taking that job in June 2011, he was a U.S. Army major and the director of emergency services at Fort Gordon. Now he’s in charge of a group of dispatchers who last year answered 163,394 emergency calls for Augustans.

Well, 163,394 calls, perhaps. Not all of those calls are emergencies, either.

Someone could call to report a crime or an accident. Or, Nutter said, “someone just wants the number to Best Buy. They’ll call us for information. They know what they’re doing. People know that if you dial that number, someone is going to answer the phone.”

Well, you always could just tell folks not to clog valued 911 lines with frivolous calls.

Well – no, you can’t.

“All I can tell people is if, in their opinion, it’s an emergency, it’s better for them to call 911 than try to figure out if they should call somewhere else. Then we can help them decide if it is an emergency,” Nutter explained. “What I don’t want to do is discourage people from calling 911.”

In other words, if you want to help the real victims, you have to put up with the occasional McNugget complainer.

Or the occasional accidental call. Nutter told me something I didn’t know. Even if a cell phone is disabled – say, deactivated or if the keypad is locked – it still can successfully dial 911. So sometimes a parent may give a child an old cell phone to play with, and find out the hard way just how well the phone still works.

Maybe that’s the line of thought that got Michael Alan Skopec in trouble. Last November, the Bristol. Ill., man was charged with calling 911 five times to complain that his iPhone didn’t work. The 911 operator asked Skopec, “Have you been drinking tonight?” “No,” he replied. “I’m just not very smart.”

So Augusta’s 911 will take all your calls. If it’s not the blazing emergency worthy of 911’s primary mission, the call will get transferred to one of the agency’s administrative lines.

And you might want to get used to the idea of 311. The city is poised to get that help line, at a cost of $477,000. Augusta’s Public Safety Committee approved the 311 line in August, to convert the old Augusta Cares customer service line to a hotline to handle
customer service calls about utilities, trash, roads and similar concerns.

Just not McNuggets.

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