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Editorial: How do we stop needless 911 calls?

The number of nuisance 911 calls is growing — and it's mainly a result of thoughtlessness.
A call-taker at work in the main E-Comm dispatch centre in Vancouver. KELLY FUREY, PNG

As the province’s emergency services struggle with the COVID endemic, it’s a depressing reality that the number of nuisance 911 calls continues to grow.

In part, the flood of such calls may be due to the growing use of cellphones. Last year 79 per cent of 911 calls came from cellphones, up from 67 per cent in 2012.

That’s a problem, because some cellphone owners program 911 into their mobile device, then accidentally activate an emergency call while fumbling with the phone.

But the primary cause of nuisance calls is sheer, inexcusable thoughtlessness. Here are some of the top 10 exasperating calls received in 2020-21 by E-Comm, the agency that co-ordinates 911 calls:

“The barista mixed up my coffee order.” “I have a messy roommate.” “A pedestrian was splashed on the sidewalk.”

Topping the list this year: “I’ve got a flat tire.” “Children are drawing with chalk at the playground.” “A neighbour used my personal garbage bin.” “Someone isn’t picking up after their dog.”

Many of these grievances are preceded by the caller telling the 911 operator: “I know this isn’t an emergency, but…”

How many are we talking about? E-Comm doesn’t keep a tally. They’re too busy dealing with two million 911 calls a year — roughly one for every two adult British Columbians.

But on an annual basis, their educated guess is that they certainly receive hundreds of such calls, and even this is likely “a gross understatement.”

The agency has tried reminding the public of the need for sensible restraint, but apparently to no effect.

This foolishness has to be weighed against the clear evidence that emergency personnel, in particular B.C. Ambulance Service staff, are under enormous pressure.

There have been reports of callers waiting half an hour and longer for an ambulance to respond. In Vancouver, callers have waited as long as two hours and more.

The question is what if anything can, or should, be done. It is not an offence to make a nuisance call to 911.

E-Comm say they have no authority to issue a ticket or some other form of penalty in such cases. Neither do law-enforcement agencies.

If someone calls a police department and deliberately gives false information, that person could be charged with public mischief. But this in itself is quite rare, and doesn’t apply to purely nuisance calls.

So should it be some form of offence to mischievously tie up emergency lines? Clearly there are downsides.

It would take a significant chunk of staff time at E-Comm to keep track of and pass along the phone numbers of nuisance callers. The agency does keep an automated record of all calls, and this could be made available to police departments if requested.

Yet law enforcement agencies in Greater Victoria say they have no interest in taking on this responsibility.

Likewise, the provincial ministry of public safety says it has no plans to make spurious 911 calls a ticketable offence.

Part of the reason may be that introducing penalties for mischievous behaviour might frighten away callers who really do need assistance.

But if legal sanctions are off the table, are other options available?

Perhaps the best solution would be for the province to issue a plea for public support. Peer pressure may be the most effective way to discourage this thoughtless misuse of a critical resource.