Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Responses to the Problem of Misuse and Abuse of 911

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.

Responses to Phantom Wireless 911 Calls

  1. Requiring manufacturers to redesign wireless phones. On June 9, 1999, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates the wireless industry, requested that manufacturers redesign their wireless phones to address the phantom call problem.4 However, most manufacturers do not appear to have heeded this request. The FCC advised manufacturers that, if necessary, it would adopt specific rules to reduce phantom calls. The FCC, upon petition, could consider adopting a mandatory order.
  2. Recalling preprogrammed wireless phones. While an FCC order would address all future wireless manufacturing, a recall would resolve the issue of the millions of phones that currently cause phantom calls. Product recall could be narrowly tailored to those models responsible, although manufacturers should have the burden of determining whether their phones cause the problem. Either the manufacturers or the FCC could prompt the recall.
  3. Underwriting and distributing phone button guards. Private entrepreneurs, recognizing the problem of phantom wireless calls, have developed button guards to reduce the accidental pressing of the 9 or 1 key, which causes certain phones to speed dial 911. Button guards also protect the redial key if 911 was the last number dialed. While this is less desirable than product recall, wireless manufacturers may find it a less costly alternative for addressing phones currently in circulation.

    † For example, see the Stop Accidental Calls website at www.StopAccidentalCalls.com.

  4. Prohibiting automatic 911 dialing. This approach should be tailored to ban wireless manufacturers from preprogramming phones. Several states and parts of Canada prohibit automatic 911 dialing. However, the laws have not been used to change phone manufacturers' autodialing programming practices.5 Enacting a federal law could be politically difficult, but it would be the most efficient way to address the problem; an FCC order could accomplish this, as well. Those states that already have legislation banning landline automatic dialing of 911 could revise their laws to also include a specific ban on the preprogramming of wireless units. While there are some advantages for individual users to have 911 pre-programmed, the burden of and delay caused by phantom calls on the 911 system outweighs the benefits.
    In Loves Park, if someone unintentionally speed dials 911, the operator tells the caller that he or she could be prosecuted for doing so, since 911 speed dialing is prohibited there.
  5. Funneling phantom wireless calls through an automated 911-answering system. In January 2001, the California Highway Patrol piloted a trial method for reducing phantom wireless calls in the Golden Gate area. During peak 911 calling times, if dispatchers determined no one was on the line, they switched the call to a separate queue, and an automated attendant asked the caller to press any number (or to say yes) if an emergency existed. If the caller did not press a number or say yes after the message played twice, the call was terminated.

    † For additional information on this initiative, contact Diane Chupinski at dchupinski@chp.ca.gov.

    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.

Responses to Phantom Wireless 911 Calls With Limited Effectiveness

  1. Dispatching officers to all phantom wireless calls. Many 911 centers try to determine if a phantom wireless call is truly an emergency. In most cases, no one is on the line. In other cases, the operator can hear someone talking to someone nearby. By listening to the conversation, the operator can determine whether the call was intentional. If it remains unclear whether the call is an emergency, many departments attempt callbacks using caller ID. If they cannot determine the caller's number, and there is any indication that an emergency exists, some 911 centers contact the caller's phone carrier to request a callback number. However, some phone carriers will not provide a number without a warrant. With the commencement of Enhanced 911, Phase II, 911 centers will have to determine whether they will dispatch to phantom call locations. If they adopt this approach, the drain on police resources could be enormous. For instance, the California Highway Patrol estimates it would potentially need twice its current number of officers to respond to the 1.8 million to 3.6 million phantom calls it receives annually.
  2. Requesting that wireless carriers address phantom calls. In December 2001, the National Emergency Number Association notified 21 wireless carriers that they should correct the phantom call problem, and forwarded a copy of the notification letter to the FCC. The association requested that carriers direct their phone manufacturers to remove or neutralize the 911 autodial feature "as quickly as possible." It also requested that wireless carriers direct retailers to turn 911 autodial programs off, issue public service warnings and fliers to alert phone owners about the phantom calls resulting from the 911 autodial pre-programming, and itemize all 911 calls in customer billing statements.7

    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.

Responses to 911 Misdials and Hang-Up Calls

  1. Educating the public. Public education could reduce 911 misdials and hang-up calls. For misdials of the international access number and area codes similar to 911, police could tailor efforts to specific populations. For instance, if elderly citizens using landlines are responsible for a majority of misdials, police could encourage them to put commonly called numbers—but not 911—on speed dial. As another example, police might persuade pay phone companies in areas with large immigrant populations to put stickers that list the international access number on their phones.†† If callers are hanging up after misdialing 911 (causing operators to needlessly make callbacks and dispatch officers), then stressing the importance of staying on the line to the public would be valuable. A frequent shortcoming of public information campaigns is the initiating agency's failure to determine whether the effort actually reduced calls in the targeted category (area code misdials, pay phone hang-ups, etc.). Without measurement, it will be unclear if the initiative actually worked.††† While public education efforts may prove worthwhile if tailored to specific offending populations, if problems recur, more refined efforts may be required.

    † 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 ed911@aol.com.

  2. Dispatching officers to landline hang-up calls only when there is evidence of an emergency. Many, but not all, 911 centers call landline hang-up numbers back (if their system can provide the numbers). If the operator is unsatisfied with the reason given for the hang-up, the line is open or no one answers, the operator usually dispatches an officer. If the line is open, 911 centers often dispatch medical personnel and, sometimes, fire personnel as well. If the line is busy, some 911 centers, such as that in Hopkins County, Kentucky, contact the local telephone operator to determine if there is a conversation on the line. If so, dispatchers do not send out an officer, reasoning that a conversation indicates the caller probably dialed 911 by accident.8 Some agencies, such as the South San Francisco Police Department, check the call history for the address to determine if there have been previous 911 hang-ups.9 In some cases, operators can determine that "playing on the phone" caused the call. Upon learning this, a handful of police agencies send a 911 information packet to the home, including a warning that there will be a fine for any subsequent false calls.10 In the vast majority of cases, no emergency call was intended. Limiting dispatch to only those locations where there is evidence of an emergency minimizes the number of unfounded calls that police must handle. If police dispatch to a home where there is no evidence of an emergency, and entry is refused, there may not be probable cause to enter the home without a warrant; a refusal alone is probably insufficient to establish probable cause for entering. Police agencies should check with their legal advisor regarding this issue, to help refine dispatch policies.

Responses to 911 Hang-Up Calls With Limited Effectiveness

  1. Dispatching officers to all landline hang-up calls. A handful of 911 centers treat all hang-up calls as emergencies requiring immediate investigation. Operators do not call back, in case a criminal answers the phone. Instead, they immediately dispatch police in hopes of catching a criminal by surprise.11 In the vast majority of cases, police find that no crime has occurred.
  2. Providing no response to pay phone hang-up calls. Because so many 911 pay phone hang-up calls are unfounded, some police agencies, including the Reno Police Department, do not dispatch officers to the locations unless there is evidence of trouble (such as screaming). Instead, they send out a general alert to officers in the field. While this approach frees officers for true emergencies, it does not fully address the underlying causes for the hang-ups.

Responses to Nonemergency 911 Calls

  1. Implementing 311 systems. Some cities, overburdened with nonemergency 911 calls, adopt 311 systems to address this problem. Over the past five years, cities such as Baltimore, with assistance from the federal government, have adopted such systems to divert and handle nonemergency calls.12 Such systems may also reduce the number of abandoned calls from callers failing to wait for a 911 operator to answer, since they can shorten call pick-up times.
  2. Educating the public via 911 educators or coordinators. As an alternative to adopting a 311 system, some jurisdictions, such as Pinellas County, hire a public educator or coordinator to teach the public about the correct—emergency-only—use of 911. This approach does not require additional dispatchers and equipment, as the 311 systems do, so for many jurisdictions, it is an affordable alternative.

Responses to Prank 911 Calls

  1. Targeting violators and applying graduated sanctions. Police can send information packets to first-time 911 abusers, as they do in Wakefield, Massachusetts,13 but if calls persist, a system of graduated sanctions, such as fines, could be of value. In many communities, making false or harassing 911 calls is a prosecutable offense, punishable with a fine or jail time. For callers who repeatedly dial 911 (without a good reason), or parents whose children repeatedly call 911 while "playing on the phone," civil fines are more appropriate than criminal sanctions, since most prosecutors will neither prosecute nor seek jail time for the offenses. Generally, prosecutors file on 911 offenses in only the most egregious cases unless a different arrangement is agreed upon between the police and the prosecutor. A number of 911 centers provide public education programs or public service announcements to reduce 911 misuse and abuse, such as hang-up calls from children "playing on the phone." For instance, in Franklin County, Ohio, a public service announcement made clear to children that with the advent of E911 "we know where you are" when you call 911; prank calls declined as a result. Police can also target specific phones from which prank calls are made.

    † 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:

    1. Diversionary calls. Unlicensed taxi drivers, called "wildcatters," were calling 911 from the phones and hanging up to divert police away from their passenger pick-up points, several blocks away at the border. Drug dealers were also making diversionary 911 calls from the phones.
    2. Prank calls. Late-night revelers returning to the United States from Mexico were calling 911 and hanging up as they passed by the phones.
    3. Misdials of the international access number. Upon arriving in the United States, some Mexican travelers, using the phones to call their families, were misdialing 911 instead of dialing 011, the international access number.

    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.

  2. Applying crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) to hot-spot pay phones. Different pay phones—for different reasons—become hot spots for false 911 calls. After reviewing at least six months' worth of pay-phone call data for trends, 911 centers should give officers a list of false-call hot spots for follow-up analysis. In designing place-specific responses, officers should consider using CPTED principles, including increasing natural surveillance and limiting or monitoring access. CPTED measures such as relocating phones to improve an owner's ability to monitor them, trimming obstructing trees and shrubbery, and removing obstacles such as dumpsters, barriers and benches can prove effective.

    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.

  3. Having property overseers monitor hot-spot pay phones. In some jurisdictions, 911 centers ask property overseers to check whether pay phone calls are true emergencies. For example, the Loves Park 911 supervisor found a pattern of repeat hang-up calls from pay phones in the city's malls, bowling alleys and schools. Now, if 911 dispatchers receive a hang-up call from one of these locations, they will not dispatch officers unless they have received confirmation of an emergency from mall security, bowling alley management or school administrators. If kids are "playing on the phone," the property overseers notify the police, who then respond to arrest the youth. Twelve percent of all 911 hang-up calls there are now handled this way. If particular pay phones are hot spots for hang-up or diversionary calls, police should determine who owns the phones (and who manages the property), and request their oversight in preventing the problem.

Response to Exaggerated Emergency 911 Calls

  1. Targeting education to the people responsible. It is worthwhile for 911 centers to identify people who make exaggerated emergency calls, and to inform them about the associated costs and hazards. People who live or work in areas with particularly severe crime problems, such as open-air drug or prostitution markets, sometimes make such calls out of fear and frustration, believing that a quick police response is essential. Rather than educating these callers individually, it may be more economical to do so in a group format (perhaps in a block meeting). Police should come prepared with alternative ways to address the problem(s) prompting the original 911 calls. In addition, police should monitor any future calls from the targeted group to determine if education efforts have resolved the matter, or if more coercive remedies, such as fines or other sanctions, are necessary.

Response to Lonely Complainant 911 Calls

  1. Arranging for suitable company for the callers. In many cases involving lonely complainants, the caller is not a danger to him- or herself or to others, and thus fails to qualify for emergency mental health services. Less coercive measures are more appropriate in such situations. Timeconsuming though it may be, if calls are frequent, arranging for professionals such as mental health or social service workers to assess callers and their circumstances will serve police interests. In some cases, informing the caller's family members about the problem may lead to increased monitoring of the caller's behavior. Alternatively, representatives from social service, charitable or faith-based organizations might agree to regularly visit the caller. Ultimately, however, constant 911 calls about imagined emergencies or fabricated ones (as a means of securing company) may indicate that the caller should no longer live alone, and may find more comfort in an assisted living facility.