Abusing 911 Emergency Call Systems

The 411 on Abusing 911

Increased penalties for abusing 911 Emergency System intended to deter a problem of undetermined significance

Recent events in North Carolina serve as a reminder of the importance of a functioning 911 system. Unfortunately, a house burned down last month during an outage of the emergency call system in Moore County.

A desire to keep such systems working properly and efficiently may have motivated the state legislators to increase the penalties for those found guilty of abusing 911 emergency call systems. On December 1, 2013 violation of the statute that Abusing 911 Ivie Law Firmprohibits accessing 911 for a purpose other than emergency communication will be bumped from a Class 3 to a Class 1 misdemeanor. Violators have to knowingly access the 911 system and know that the access is not for an emergency.

Accordingly, a North Carolina man who dialed 911 in Hanover County earlier this year to report his drug dealer for failing to deliver the drugs he purchased might not be in violation of this particular statute. He apparently thought he was reporting a crime that warranted assistance or, at the very least, the attention of the police. He may have been correct, but for the wrong reasons.

The change in the law is more likely intended to address the behavior allegedly exhibited by a 52 year old Summerfield woman who was arrested this week for making 41 calls to 911 between April and September 1st.  That pales in comparison to a Gastonia woman who was accused earlier this year of abusing 911 by calling more than 360 times in a three month period.

In the past, 911 systems received misdials from those trying to reach 411 and directory assistance. Now that almost everyone has immediate access to the web the need for such assistance has decreased significantly.

In North Carolina there are at least two area codes that can create a misdial: the 910 area in the southeastern North Carolina, including the cities of Fayetteville, Jacksonville, Laurinburg, Lumberton and Wilmington and the 919 area in the Triangle and adjoining counties. However, with the advent of cell phones and contact lists many cannot remember the last time they had to dial a number.

With technological advancements one might assume that accidental dialing of 911 would have decreased, but it still presents a significant problem. If a caller realizes a misdial to 911 has been made and hangs up, personnel may still have to follow up on the call to ascertain whether there is a real emergency. Accordingly, citizens are advised by agencies not to hang up when they realize they have unintentionally dialed 911 so that additional resources are not expended.

The severity of intentional abuse (or unintentional for that matter) is not readily ascertained from statistics that are maintained by agencies. What can be discerned is the significant number of calls that are handled by such systems. The call centers in Wake County, for example, received 52,747 calls to 911 in May of this year, the most recent month for which statistics have been published as of this date (see published statistics HERE).

The primary evidence that people are abusing 911 is anecdotal and reported by dispatchers who find it frustrating when the system is used for inappropriate reasons including prank calls. Whether a call is a prank may not be readily evident at the time of the call. At least some prank calls are diversionary in nature, intended to direct attention to some nonexistent emergency and away from the location where a crime is being committed. Other inappropriate calls are made by people who are paranoid or mentally-ill and actually believe an emergency exists when there is none.

Unfortunately, without more concrete evidence of abuse, the amended law is an answer to a problem of undetermined significance. Lawmakers hope that the increased penalties will act as a deterrent but have no idea how many people need to alter their conduct or, of those, are capable of doing so.

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