Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.
There is no nationally recognized protocol to address 911 misuse and abuse. Rather, there is a patchwork of federal, local and private responses. They are detailed below, along with other suggested responses, to provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. Some forms of the problem—such as phantom wireless calls—must be addressed at the federal level, but this will occur only if local agencies combine their efforts to highlight the extent of the problem. Conversely, landline 911 problems are best addressed at the local level. It is critical that you tailor these responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Police responses alone are seldom effective in sufficiently reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do; give careful consideration to who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it.
† For example, see the Stop Accidental Calls website at www.StopAccidentalCalls.com.
† For additional information on this initiative, contact Diane Chupinski at email@example.com.During the five-week trial, the average waiting time for a dispatcher to answer a 911 call dropped from 93 seconds to eight seconds. However, lawyers for one of the wireless carriers objected, suggesting they might sue, and representatives of the deaf community asserted that the system was not friendly to the community's needs.†† The Highway Patrol ultimately abandoned the project.
†† Telecommunications devices for the deaf, commonly referred to as TTY, send out certain tones that 911 center computers recognize, allowing for written responses. However, these devices cannot be used with wireless phones.
The United Kingdom has instituted a similar initiative, dubbed "Silent Solution." Cellular calls are answered with an automated message: "If you require any of the emergency services, press 5 on your keypad two times now." If the caller does not do so, the recording resumes: "Nothing has been heard. Operator, please release the line." If the caller presses 55, the automated attendant immediately reroutes the call to the police on the highest-priority line, and it is the next to be answered.6 Using this system, U.K. emergency communications officials discovered that of the more than 14,000 cellular calls to 999 per day, only about 25 are true emergencies.
If wireless carriers remain unresponsive to the FCC's request, and to police requests for reform, police agencies could use a funneled phantom call system. This approach requires some refinement to address the deaf community's needs. In addition, it would be wise (although difficult) to prenotify the area's wireless users about the system. There is a slight risk that a wireless caller in a life-threatening situation—such as someone being attacked—could not respond, and the call would be terminated. However, this risk also exists when no one responds to a 911 hang-up from a pay phone call, and a number of police agencies no longer dispatch officers to such calls.
Several years ago, officials from the California Highway Patrol and the Reno, Nevada, Police Department separately met with carriers whose phones made phantom calls. Several carriers changed their handset designs. Some agreed to stop preprogramming their phones to autodial 911; however, many have not done so. The Highway Patrol had greater success than the Reno police. Only one carrier agreed to meet with Reno officials to discuss the issue, and that carrier did not have the largest share of Reno's wireless market. Handset manufacturers rejected the idea of a product recall, and phone owners can still program their phones to autodial 911. The yearly increase in wireless users, coupled with the use of older phones that make phantom calls, has offset any gains achieved by the few manufacturers who no longer preprogram phones.
A more coordinated effort involving national police organizations and the FCC may be needed to effectively address the problem.
† Putting 911 on speed dial increases the risk of misdials due to accidental pressing of the button.
†† Some people mistakenly dial 911 instead of 011 (the international access code) when phoning someone in a foreign country.
††† Several years ago, a police agency employed a clown to visit elementary schools to teach children how to use 911 correctly. Thereafter, some children called 911 to speak to the clown.
Pinellas County employs a 911 public educator to address the misuse and abuse problems arising from its more than 500,000 annual 911 calls. Misdials and hang-ups accounted for over 10 percent of all 911 calls. The educator found, from a study in one of the county's cities, that children were responsible for only 10 percent of the misdials and hang-up calls, so efforts were geared toward adults. The initiative reduced the average annual number of misdials and hang-up calls by more than 12,000 over a three-year period.††††
†††† For more information about Pinellas County 911 and the public educator's role, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
† In Marion County, Mo., first-time violators receive a letter describing the call, as well as information on what constitutes a true emergency. Second-time violators are informed that they will face prosecution if another false or nonemergency call occurs; the county's prosecuting attorney has agreed to follow through in such cases.
In 1994, San Diego police Officers Patti Clayton, Bob Smith and Miguel Flores, and Sgts. David Contreras and Rudy Tai, noticed that a high volume of 911 hang-up calls were coming from pay phones in the 700 block of East San Ysidro Boulevard, in the city's Southern Division. This area abuts Mexico and has the busiest border crossing in the world—more than 70,000 vehicles and pedestrians cross during an average day. Due to this heavy border traffic, officers were sometimes spending over an hour responding to the calls, invariably finding no reason for them.
Officer Clayton surveilled the 20 pay phones on the block, phones belonging to six different owners. She also spoke with community members, taxi and bus drivers, and business owners, and determined three main causes for the hangups:
The police team met with business owners, alerting them to the severity of the problem. The owners, realizing that police were being diverted from crime-ridden areas to respond to the false calls, agreed to remove 10 of the phones and to relocate several others. Officer Clayton installed signs above the phones that read, "It is a crime to dial 911 to make a false police report." With the owners' consent, she also posted "no loitering" signs next to the phones. The sign messages are in both English and Spanish.
To address Mexican travelers' misdialing, the team asked the phone manufacturer to install differently shaped 9 keys in the phones, but this proved cost-prohibitive. As an alternative, Officer Clayton painted all the 9 keys red, and repainted them weekly to make up for wear and tear.
As a result of the team's efforts, the number of 911 calls from the phones dropped by 50 percent. The initiative also resulted in lower response times to other calls.
By analyzing 911 hot-spot data, St. Petersburg, Florida, police Sergeant Charles Burnette determined that pay phones near a convenience store had accounted for 71 hang-up or "playing on the phone" calls over a five-year period. The call times coincided with the time students were released from school. Sgt. Burnette noted that foliage blocked natural surveillance of the phones, and that the phones were unlit, compounding the problem. He met with store management, who agreed to monitor the phones,† and asked city staff to trim the obstructing foliage and install lights by the phones. As a result of this initiative, the false calls stopped.
† The convenience store owner initially had the phones placed on the property's perimeter, rather than near the store's entrance, to discourage loitering. However, the phones' remoteness, along with the obstructing foliage, prevented the staff from monitoring them.
Sgt. Burnette reviewed other pay phone hot-spots and during his analysis discovered that five percent of all of St. Petersburg's 911 calls were either hang-up or "playing on the phone" calls. Pay phone calls appeared to account for some of the problem. Because the calls did not cluster solely around student release times, Sgt. Burnette surmised that adults were also responsible. He recommended CPTED surveys of pay phones and developed an ordinance requiring that phones be maintained to CPTED standards. The ordinance also requires that signs notifying callers of the penalties for 911 misuse be posted near pay phones, and provides a fine structure for phone owners who violate the ordinance. At the time of this writing, the ordinance remains under consideration.
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