Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Understanding Your Local Problem

The information provided above is only a generalized description of 911 misuse and abuse. You must combine the basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem. Carefully analyzing your problem will help you design a more effective response strategy.

Asking the Right Questions

The following are some critical questions you should ask in analyzing your particular 911 misuse and abuse problem, even if the answers are not always readily available. To accurately assess the magnitude of the problem, you may find that you must refine how your dispatch center records certain call types. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses later on.

Incidents

  • Which specific nature codes identify 911 misuse and abuse?

    † Police communications centers use nature codes to classify incoming 911 calls.

  • What percentage of 911 calls are wireless? What percentage of wireless calls are phantom?
  • What percentage of calls are misdials? What percentage of misdials are from private homes? From fax machines?
  • What percentage of calls are hang-ups? What percentage of hang-ups are from private homes? From pay phones? Do dispatcher callbacks to home and pay phones illuminate a pattern as to the cause of the hang-ups?†† What percentage of hang-ups are actual emergencies?

    †† The Loves Park 911 center determined, through analysis, that an increase in landline hang-ups between 1993 and 1994 was due to their phone company's switching all city calls, other than those to 911, from analogue to digital. (With analogue calls, there is a pause before the phone rings.) Many 911 callers, now accustomed to hearing an immediate ring, were assuming the pause meant their call did not go through, and were hanging up before a 911 operator answered. The 911 center's supervisor asked the phone company to replace the pause with a false ring, and 911 hang-ups subsequently dropped to previous levels.

  • What percentage of calls are nonemergencies, including transfer call requests?
  • What percentage of calls are pranks, such as false bomb threats or those that clearly involve children "playing on the phone"? To what extent are such calls a problem? Are there any indications that diversionary calls are a problem? If so, are there any patterns to those calls?
  • What percentage of "shots fired" calls are downgraded to assaults without a firearm once police investigate? Are there any patterns of other exaggerated emergency calls?
  • Are there any patterns of lonely complainant calls? If so, to what extent are such calls a problem?

Impact on 911 Resources

  • What percentage of your 911 resources are annually consumed with calls that qualify as misuse and abuse?
  • How long does it take 911 personnel to determine if a call is phantom? A landline misdial?
  • Do phantom and nonemergency calls delay response to other emergencies? If so, by how long?
  • What is the current total cost to your 911 center and/or police department for handling phantom wireless calls, misdials and hang-up calls, nonemergency calls, prank calls, exaggerated emergency calls, and lonely complainant calls?

Offenders

  • Which wireless phone brands and models account for automatic dialing of 911? For random dialing?
  • Which businesses and what types of fax machines account for fax calls to 911?
  • What percentage of misdials and hang-ups are by adults? Teens and children?

Locations/Times

  • Do certain locations account for higher percentages of 911 hang-up and prank calls (e.g., malls, bowling alleys, schools, common routes to schools, skating rinks, convenience stores pay phone banks, or casinos with indoor or nearby pay phones)?
  • Who owns the phones at these locations? Do the owners adequately monitor the phones?
  • Do hang-up calls cluster around certain times (e.g., times when children are released from school, times of year)?
  • Do nonemergency calls cluster around certain times of day? Days of week? Times of year (e.g., the football season or over the holidays)?

Current Responses

  • How does your 911 center monitor 911 misuse and abuse? Are responses measured for their effectiveness in reducing it?
  • What local and state laws govern 911 misuse and abuse? Are they adequate? Do they address each aspect of the problem? Are they used to address the problem, and if so, have they reduced it?

    † Many local and state laws that address 911 misuse and abuse may require revision to cover all aspects of the problem.

  • Are the wireless phone manufacturers in your area aware of and concerned about phantom calls?
  • Does your jurisdiction advise citizens to stay on the line if they misdial 911?††

    †† For example, the Framingham, Mass. Police Department's website (http://framinghampd.org/) contains this message: "If you dial 911 by accident, do not hang up the phone, all hang-ups on 911 must have police and or fire dispatched to the location to check on the call. Accidents happen, stay on and tell the operator it was an error."

  • If you receive lonely complainant calls, what efforts have you made to stop them?
  • What repercussions, if any, apply to callers who exaggerate an emergency?

Measuring Your Effectiveness

Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. You should take measures of your problem before you implement responses, to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them, to determine whether they have been effective. (For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see the companion guide to this series, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers.)

The following are potentially useful measures of the effectiveness of responses to 911 misuse and abuse:

  • reduced number of phantom wireless calls;
  • reduced number of phantom calls from wireless phones previously susceptible to them;
  • reduced number of misdials and hang-up calls;
  • increased rate of phantom and hang-up calls that are actual emergencies;
  • reduced number of prank calls;
  • reduced number of exaggerated emergency calls;
  • reduced number of lonely complainant calls;
  • reduced amount of time, on average, it takes for dispatchers to answer calls;
  • reduced number of personnel hours spent handling misuse and abuse calls;
  • reduced misuse and abuse call rates for various types of premises—private homes, malls, bowling alleys, schools,
    convenience stores, etc.;
  • reduced incidence of misuse and abuse calls at certain times, such as during rush hour, after school lets out, over the holidays, and during summer months; and
  • reduced overall number of misuse and abuse calls.