Education on properly using 911 system still is sorely needed
There are things that make you laugh. There are things that make you cry. There are things that make you shake your head in wonderment. There are things that make your jaw drop in disbelief. And then there are things that evoke each of those responses all at the same time.
I encountered one of those things as I wandered the aisles of the National Emergency Number Association’s conference in Minneapolis last week. I turned a corner and stumbled into the booth of a production company that is working on a television program called The World’s Most Ridiculous 911 Calls. I talked to a couple of the show’s producers, Joe Nelms and Sue Bailey, who told me that they’d gotten a couple of nibbles from network executives. They were at the conference to collect stories from call-takers and dispatchers. And they collected some doozies.
Bailey said that the stories break out into two basic categories: “ridiculous” and “ridiculous but necessary.” An example of the latter involved a call from a concerned citizen who heard something thrashing about in a car trunk. The car was parked in a fairly deserted parking lot and there were no other vehicles in close proximity. “So he’s thinking that this is something out of Goodfellas, that there’s a body in there with tape over the mouth, that kind of thing,” Nelms said. “When he opened the trunk, he found a huge fish that was flopping around.”
Another example concerns a 911 call that went on for about 20 minutes. When the call-taker fielded the call, there was no sound coming from the other end of the line. Thinking that it might be a domestic-violence situation, the call-taker asked several questions and cleverly instructed the caller to respond by pressing 1 for yes and 2 for no. Based on the answers, it was determined that a patrol car should be dispatched. When the officers arrived, they found a cat on a fireplace mantle playing with a cell phone.
Then there are the calls that are just plain ridiculous. Bailey told two stories of people who called 911 because they were out of toilet paper. One of them was sitting in the stall at a very large discount store. The other was at home. When he was told by the call-taker that his situation wasn’t an emergency, “he replied, ‘From where I’m sitting, it is,’” Bailey said. Other stories they’ve gathered involve people calling to find out the winning lottery numbers, the weather forecast, how much snow fell last night and who won on American Idol. “One person called 911 to ask whether it was OK to eat the first snowfall of the winter,” Bailey said. “I don’t even know what that means.”
I asked Nelms and Bailey whether the telecommunicators they spoke with were annoyed at having to deal with such inanity. Surprisingly not, I was told.
“They have really good attitudes, because they’ve been doing this for a while and the truth is that most people in this business are here to help people,” Nelms said. “What we heard over and over is that the perspective of the dispatchers and call-takers is that these are emergencies to the people who are calling. … What we’ve been hearing is that they’re all pros who treat every call as if it’s serious until they’re sure that it’s not.”
I’m not sure what to make of this. Are people really that stupid? I’m not sure that I want to watch this program should it get picked up — I think I would get too irritated. But I definitely will watch the sequel if it ever comes to fruition — Nelms and Bailey are hoping to catch up with the actual callers and ask them what they were thinking at the time. I would start with the guy in the discount store and ask him if it ever occurred to him to yell “help” really loud.
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