Urgent Matters

Sometimes you just have to grin and bear it

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In our modern world, there seems to be a pill for everything. High blood pressure? No problem — here's your pill. High cholesterol? No worries! Just swallow this and eat as many burgers as you want. Erectile dysfunction? We have something for that, too. Getting sand kicked in your face at the beach? Well, there's even something for that — though you won't be able to get it at your local pharmacy.

It seems there's a pill for everything except the one thing that we need to fix the most: stupidity. If you're a regular reader, you've already guessed what triggered this rant — yet another instance of some moron abusing the 911 system. This time, it was an Illinois man who dialed his local public-safety answering point five times — five times! — to report that his iPhone wasn't working properly. (Now that I think about it, I wonder how this idiot was able to navigate a smartphone in the first place.)

This seems to be a problem with no solution. Some states have laws on the books to punish those who call 911 for events that aren't truly emergencies. But, as Trey Fogerty — director of government affairs for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) — noted, it's not always easy or expedient to enforce these laws. Sometimes, prosecutors, judges and juries decide to cut offenders breaks, deeming that they meant no harm or that they believed that they were experiencing a true emergency at that moment. Not only that, any prosecution is a costly endeavor and resources are slim, so these cases aren't a high priority.

Even those cases that are prosecuted to a conviction can take weeks and months to play out. "It's not as quick as Night Court will have us believe," Fogerty said.

I asked Fogerty whether federal legislation would pack more punch in this regard. He told me that enacting such legislation would be problematic, if not impossible, to enact, because 911 is a local service.

In the same conversation, I discussed the media's role in this situation with Brian Fontes, NENA's CEO. As a member of the Fourth Estate, I generally believe that the media far too often is blamed unreasonably — in other words, don't kill the messenger. But it seems like every time someone calls 911 to complain that he didn't get his taco or chicken nuggets, the incident ends up on every late-night talk show. I suggested to Fontes that this is not a good thing — why give some idiot who places others at risk by abusing the 911 system his 15 minutes of fame? If you're going to feature one of these dolts on national television, my vote would be to string him up by his toes. But Fontes had another take.

"When people laugh at these events, they do so because they know how absurd they are; they instinctively understand that they are contrary to the seriousness of 911, which is why they find them humorous," Fontes said. "This is a public-education issue that we need to continuously publicize, and these ridiculous 911 calls play a role in that. Perhaps inadvertently, they underscore why this is so wrong."

Wrong as they are, goofball calls aren't nearly as big a problem as chronic abuse calls made by malcontents, Fontes said, adding that if anyone is going to get the book thrown at them, they should be at the front of the line.

Let's face it, in a nation of 350 million people, you're going to have a few boneheads, so these calls are going to continue to happen and will continue to be the fodder for punch lines. But, should one of these idiots prevent a 911 telecommunicator from handling a true emergency and some innocent victim loses his life, it will be no laughing matter. Nor will it be on late-night TV. Instead, think Today, Good Morning America and the evening news.

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What's Urgent Matters?

Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.

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Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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