Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Misuse and Abuse of 911

Guide No.19 (2002)

by Rana Sampson

The Problem of Misuse and Abuse of 911

This guide addresses the problem of misuse and abuse of 911. It begins by describing the problem and its scope. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local problem, and discusses potential responses to it.

† The equivalent U.K. emergency number is 999.

There is little evaluative research on 911 misuse and abuse. The responses suggested are based on sound problem oriented policing principles, but as new phone technology poses additional challenges, some responses have yet to be tested. Thus, this guide is mainly intended to describe an urgent problem and encourage police agencies to analyze and address it.

Related Problems

Misuse and abuse of 911 shares some similarities with the problems listed below, which require their own analysis and response. This guide does not address these problems:

  • multiple 911 calls about the same incident, such as multiple calls about a traffic accident; and
  • false burglar and fire alarm 911 calls (see the False Burglar Alarms guide in this series).

Scope of the Problem

For the purposes of this guide, 911 misuse and abuse is divided into two categories: unintentional and intentional calls. Each category contains different types of 911 misuse and abuse calls, as described below. While there are no national surveys detailing the full extent of 911 misuse and abuse, estimates from various organizations and agencies suggest the problem is widespread in the United States and elsewhere. Some of the particulars regarding the calls may vary depending on local circumstances.

† One reason for using these categories is that some police agencies already do so in classifying 911 misuse and abuse calls. A second reason is that it immediately identifies the purpose for the call; however, one must look further to determine if calls are a misuse or abuse of 911.

Unintentional 911 Calls

Unintentional calls occur when a person or phone inadvertently dials 911. This category includes phantom wireless calls, and misdials and hang-up calls.

Phantom Wireless 911 Calls

Phantom wireless calls are a documented problem in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, although other countries where wireless phones are extensively used probably also experience this problem since wireless systems are similar, despite location. Such calls occur for the following reasons:

  • Automatic dialing: If a cell phone user inadvertently presses the 9 or 1 key on a phone preprogrammed to dial 911, the phone automatically dials 911, even without the user having to press "send." This often happens when a wireless phone is attached to a belt or in a pocket or purse, and the 9 or 1 is bumped. Most wireless users are unaware that their phones are preprogrammed to dial 911 and retail salespersons do not inform purchasers that their phones are susceptible to unintentional 911 dialing.
  • Redialing or resending: If, after completing a 911 call, a wireless caller accidentally presses or bumps the "redial" or "send" key, the phone dials 911 again. (Note that landline users may also accidentally redial 911 this way.)
  • Random dialing: Some older wireless phones dial 911 when the phone's batteries are low.

    † When their batteries are low, some phones start randomly dialing numbers, eventually dialing 911. The call goes through without pressing the "send" button.

The National Emergency Number Association reports that phantom wireless calls account for between 25 and 70 percent of all 911 calls in some U.S. communities. The California Highway Patrol (currently the handler of nearly all California wireless 911 calls) estimates that between 1.8 million and 3.6 million of the 6 million wireless 911 calls it receives annually are phantom. U.K. police estimate they receive 11,000 phantom wireless calls per day to their 999 emergency number. The wide data variations highlight the need for further research to pinpoint the scale of the problem.

However, the problem is already serious enough to suggest that ignoring it could have severe ramifications for police and legitimate 911 callers.

Of all the 911 misuse and abuse problems this guide addresses, phantom wireless calls will show the quickest increase, unless addressed. The U.S. 911 system handles 500,000 calls daily, or about 183 million annually.1 One in four calls are from wireless phones, a tenfold increase since 1991.2 In the next five years, the number of wireless 911 calls is expected to double from the current 46 million per year3 to 92 million annually, potentially exacerbating an already significant phantom call problem.††

†† As wireless carriers move into Enhanced 911, Phase II, 911 centers will be able to locate wireless callers. However, since so many wireless 911 calls are unintentional, implementing Phase II will be a less important lifesaving measure than addressing the current problem of phantom calls, since they prolong the time it takes for dispatchers to respond to other calls.

911 Misdials and Hang-Up Calls

Misdials and hang-up calls are another 911 problem. Police suspect that many of these calls occur when callers misdial area codes similar to 911. Others result from misdialing of the international access number—011. In addition, business Centrex and fax users sometimes dial 9 to get an outside line, when their phone systems do not require doing so, if the caller then dials a number starting with 1 and depresses 1 again by accident, the system dials 911 (thus 911 operators sometimes hear fax static on the line). In 2000, the Pinellas County, Florida, Emergency Communications Center received 20,646 misdials, accounting for 4 percent of all its 911 calls.†† In Loves Park, Illinois, 3 percent of the 911 calls received in 2000 resulted from area code, international access number and Centrex misdials.

† Such area codes include those for Wilmington, N.C. (910); Savannah, Ga. (912); Kansas City, Kan. (913); Westchester County, N.Y. (914); El Paso, Texas (915); Sacramento, Calif. (916); some parts of New York City (917); Tulsa, Okla. (918); and Raleigh, N.C. (919).

†† The Pinellas County 911 coordinator collects data on all 911 calls and tracks year-to-year increases in different types of calls, such as misdials and hang-ups.

It is suspected that many misdials end up as hang-up calls, once the callers realize their mistake. Agencies that have examined hang-up calls report that a majority are due to caller misdialing (rather than prank calls or hang-ups for other reasons). Many agencies instruct citizens not to hang up if they misdial 911. If a caller hangs up, many agencies conduct callbacks or dispatch officers to determine if a police or medical emergency exists.

The number of 911 wireless misdials and hang-ups is impossible to pin down without caller ID, which would allow for callbacks to determine the cause. However, without significant improvements, wireless caller location information will tax the resources of many 911 centers, unless the phantom call problem is resolved.

Intentional 911 Calls

Callers sometimes deliberately, but inappropriately, dial 911. Such intentional calls fall under several distinct categories.

Nonemergency 911 Calls

Nonemergency calls often constitute a large portion of all 911 calls. Callers sometimes phone about an incident—albeit not an emergency—that requires police attention (e.g., the caller's car was broken into the previous night, or the caller has been involved in a noninjury vehicle accident). Others call 911 to ask about non-police-related matters (e.g., the time of a football game, the directions to a local event, the exact time of day, or the time of garbage pick-ups). In addition, because wireless carriers do not charge for 911 calls, cell phone users sometimes call 911 and ask the dispatcher to transfer their call to a non-police number, to avoid paying for it. At least one police agency found that it was their own off-duty personnel who abused 911 in this way.

† For example, in 2000, 40 percent of the 911 calls in Jefferson County, Ky., were nonemergencies (Tangonan 2000). In Floyd County, Ind., nearly half the monthly 911 calls are nonemergencies (Tangonan 2000). In 2001, the San Diego Sheriff's Department reported that more than half of its 911 calls were frivolous (Ma 2001).

Prank 911 Calls

People sometimes call 911 to falsely claim an emergency or to deliberately hang up. Most agencies do not keep separate totals on the number of prank calls, so it is unclear how significant a problem this is in the United States. Some of these calls are referred to, in policing circles, as children "playing on the phone." These calls generally come from private homes or pay phones—particularly pay phones easily accessible to teens and children (such as in or near malls, bowling alleys, or schools). In some of the more extreme cases, students falsely claim to have planted a bomb in a school. Doing so is a quick way to anonymously force the immediate evacuation of the school and cessation of classes.††

†† Some students use this tactic to avoid and postpone an academic test for which they are unprepared. For some of the same reasons, students sometimes pull school fire alarms.

A subcategory of prank calls is diversionary calls. A caller dials 911 to send the police to a location where no emergency has occurred, diverting them away from the caller's criminal activity. During the 1990s, when open-air drug markets were at a peak in the United States, officers frequently noted such calls and their suspicions that drug dealers were behind them. There are only a few ways to determine if a call is diversionary: if the caller admits it; if someone informs on the caller; or if the dispatcher or police compare the caller's location with that of the alleged emergency, to determine if the caller could plausibly claim an emergency at the called in location.

The difference between "playing on the phone" calls and diversionary calls lies in the motives behind them. Those who "play on the phone" (but do not immediately hang up) typically want to see the police respond, so they are unlikely to send the police to an area not visible to them. Diversionary callers want the opposite result. (Examples of police responses to both types of calls are provided later in this guide.)

Exaggerated Emergency 911 Calls

Sometimes 911 callers intentionally exaggerate the seriousness of an emergency to get a quicker police response (although it is unclear how extensive this problem is). For example, a caller may falsely report "shots fired" when calling about a dispute or assault. Such 911 misuse is difficult to prove because the caller might simply claim, for instance, that he or she heard shots but did not actually see a gun fired. In other words, the caller knows there is enough room for "caller error" that he or she cannot be charged (or prosecuted) for the exaggerated 911 call.

Lonely Complainant 911 Calls

Some 911 callers, over a series of months or years, repeatedly report an emergency, yet the police never find any evidence of one. The calls are not pranks, and they do not neatly fit into the exaggerated emergency category. They are typically made by the live-alone elderly or mentally ill. Some callers suffer from delusions, actually believing an emergency is occurring; others are often simply seeking company, perhaps not realizing the public expense of their calls and the accident-injury risks involved in officers responding to high priority dispatch calls. The fact that these callers commonly claim an intruder is in their yard or house perhaps suggests a rational manipulation of 911 and of police services.