Worried mother calling 911

Using 911 Appropriately

Since 911 was introduced in 1968 as a universal number for reaching emergency assistance, efforts to raise public awareness about 911 have been effective—perhaps too effective, some reports have speculated. Because most people face emergency situations only rarely, they lack firsthand experience with 911. As a result, they may have unreasonable expectations about what will happen when they contact 911 for emergency assistance. Thus, many public safety answering points (PSAPs) follow protocols that reassure callers and guide them through a sequence of questions and instructions that help call-takers take charge of the situation and to quickly obtain information that is needed to dispatch the right responders to the right location.

Generally speaking, people are aware that they should call 911 in an emergency, but they are less aware of the circumstances in which they should not call 911. The result is that many calls to 911 do not involve true emergencies, which creates a burden on the system.

Newspapers, TV news and websites have publicized a growing number of cases in which people called 911 to complain about such non-emergency situations as inquiring about parking tickets, asking for advice on cooking a turkey or being dissatisfied with their order at a fast-food drive-through. Tapes of such calls have even provided ongoing fodder for late-night TV comedians, with one show featuring a recurring segment on the subject.

Inappropriate use of 911 can be expected to continue, or possibly even grow, as 911 services become available through enhanced technologies and via new communications methods such as text messaging. In addition, public expectations for 911 technology may exceed the actual capabilities of the 911 system, and there may be instances where, for example, people send a text message to 911 requesting emergency assistance, instead of calling. In such a case, the caller might not be aware that the text message did not go through.

All of these factors suggest a growing need for targeted and well-coordinated public-education efforts.

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