As a kid growing up in the late sixties and early seventies, I remember fondly the myriad public-service announcements of the time. My favorites were the ones that extolled us to buckle up for safety — it had a catchy jingle — and to “give a hoot, don’t pollute.” (I was, and still am, a big fan of “Woodsy Owl.”) It’s time for a new public-service campaign, this one to educate America on how to properly use the 911 communications system.

Recently, I read of two incidents where callers clearly abused the 911 system. In one, a parent called to report his son wouldn’t clean his room; in the other, the caller reported that French fries were missing from her fast-food order.

What is wrong with these people?

These are not isolated incidents. “Abuses of the 911 system occur every day,” said Craig Whittington, the new president of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). When they do, they prevent 911 call-takers from handling actual emergencies. That’s a big problem.

Not long ago, I asked Whittington what he thought of such abuses. His response was surprisingly charitable. Where I would have suggested some form of corporal punishment, Whittington said that what constitutes an emergency often is in the eye of the caller.

“You and I might not think that a stolen bicycle is an emergency,” he said. “But to a single parent who just took a 20% pay cut, it might be a huge emergency, because that bike might be the way their child gets to school.”

Nevertheless, Whittington said it is imperative that the public becomes educated not only about how to properly use the 911 system, but also about the ramifications of using it improperly. He added that the 911 sector should be doing more in this area.
“We haven’t done the greatest job of educating the public, because we’ve been so focused on doing our jobs,” he said.

Whittington also said it is equally important that the public is educated regarding the importance of using the network when it is needed. This is especially true of the elderly, who often are reluctant to dial 911, Whittington said. He told of an incident that hit close to home.

“My dad, who was 60 at the time, suffered a compound fracture,” said Whittington, whose day job is 911 coordinator for Guilford Metro 911 Communications in Greensboro, N.C. “He walked out of the woods with bone sticking out of his leg — he was a World War II vet. At the time I lived 20 miles away, but he called me to see whether my wife would drive over to take a look at it.”

Education is near and dear to Whittington, who served on NENA’s Education Advisory Board for six years before joining the group’s Executive Council as executive vice president in 2007. But he wonders how a small organization like NENA can educate the public on this matter, especially in an economy in which money is tight and getting tighter.

“It’s a daunting task to train 300 million people,” he said.

Realistically, the only way to get it done is to launch a grassroots effort that would leverage 911 sector professionals from coast to coast, Whittington said.

“We have to get the men and women of this industry to be the voice of 911,” he said. “Not everything has to start in Washington, D.C. We have to fight at the local level. We have to rally and do everything we can do to educate local officials that training money should be the last thing they cut — and that includes public education.”

It’s good advice, according to Gregory Parker, a member of the Texas Commission on State Emergency Communications, who spoke last month at NENA’s conference in Fort Worth, Texas. Parker said that building alliances with officials on the local level is essential because they have influence with officials who are higher on the food chain. And those state officials control funding in most cases, Parker said.

In the event that NENA one day gets such a grassroots effort off the ground, I’d like to suggest a slogan for the public-service campaign: “911 will work, if you’re not a jerk.” I wonder what Woodsy Owl is doing these days.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.