Ga. City Facing Increasing Frequency of Unnecessary 9-1-1 Calls
June 17—One of the worst times for inappropriate calls to Augusta's 911 Emergency Services came during last year's Masters Tournament.
Severe weather had canceled the Par-3 Contest after people had come to the course that morning, and everyone tried to leave the parking lot at once, 911 Director Daniel Dunlap said. When traffic wouldn't move, many got on their cellphones and dialed 911 to ask why.
"We received several 911 calls from people wondering why they were sitting in traffic for so long," he said. "That's definitely not a reason to call 911."
Those kind of calls for things that are definitely not emergencies can make up roughly half of the nearly 1,000 calls the center averages daily, Dunlap said. They are more than a nuisance to call-takers and dispatchers at the center.
That means "those resources not being readily available because they are tied up or because they are at a location where they are not needed," Dunlap said.
Traffic is a big source of inappropriate calls, as some people call wondering why there is a slowdown on Bobby Jones Expressway or Interstate 20. Accidents are also a surprising source of unnecessary calls, Dunlap said. If there is an accident at Walton Way and Gordon Highway, for instance, a dozen people might call it in when really only one call might be needed, he said.
Accidental calls, pocket dials or otherwise, are also a big source of nuisance calls. Many cellphones allow 911 calls even when the phone is locked by pressing a certain sequence that the user might trigger accidentally. Another big source of accidental calls are places that require the caller to dial 9 first, such as hotels. And if, say, the room service extension is 11, you can see how that might happen, Dunlap said.
One surprising source is old phones. Prepaid phones and old phones that no longer have service can still call one number, Dunlap said.
"And that's 911," he said. Adults might give an old phone to a child to play with and, as has happened in the past in Augusta, the child takes the phone to school and then triggers a 911 call.
"But we can't call that number back," Dunlap said. The location comes up as a school and then a deputy has to go and follow up, he said.
Many inappropriate 911 calls are patients looking to abuse the ambulance service for a ride, he said. Those patients will call with a medical emergency when they "really just need a ride to the hospital," Dunlap said. "When they call 911 and request an ambulance as just a transport mechanism, it can tie up those resources when they are really needed for true emergency situations."
Some who call for an ambulance really don't have a medical problem, he said.
"They just need to get across town," he said. "So once they get to a hospital or emergency room, they'll exit the ambulance because they needed to get from point A to point B in a quick amount of time. That's definitely not the best use of the resources."
Gold Cross EMS gets those kinds of calls "all day, every day," said Chief Operating Officer Steven Vincent. "At least one an hour, maybe more."
The service probably writes off $1 million a year because it isn't or can't be reimbursed for those calls, even if the person is insured, because the calls do not meet the medical necessity standard, he said.
Like 911, their dispatch also gets inappropriate calls, he said.
"Sometimes people call us because their power is off," Vincent said. "Or, 'I'm hungry. I need you all to bring me some food.'"
Even if the call is an emergency, the overall system is hampered by equipment that has not kept up with the times, Dunlap said.
"The technology that the current 911 infrastructure is built upon is archaic," he said.
Calls from a landline are tied to a physical address, but now 53.9 percent of homes in the U.S. are wireless-only, and it is 70 percent for adults ages 25-34 and for renters, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
The percentage was even higher for the callers using the Augusta 911 system last year—85 percent came from wireless phones, above the industry average of 75 percent, Dunlap said. If that person can't provide an address, the system will only show the location of the cell tower that the call came from, he said. The center employees can look to other means, such as asking the wireless carrier for a billing address or using the internet to do a reverse look-up of the number, Dunlap said.
"We'll use every resource available," he said.
Of all the information they can get from a caller, the most important comes down to one thing: "Location," Dunlap said.
In February, the system added an option to text to 911, but it has been used only a handful of times. One notable example is the guy who texted "'sup?" (for what's up?), prompting the dispatcher to text back and ask if he needed emergency services. The guy replied, "I didn't know this thing actually worked."
Dunlap hopes the texting feature will prove more useful in the future.
"It's the way we communicate in our everyday lives," he said.