911 Swamped With Nonemergency Calls

Feb. 10, 2006 — -- Every minute of every day, 380 people call 911. That's a staggering 200 million calls a year.

But now the nation's lifeline has a problem. In a surprising number of emergency calls, there's no emergency.

In Arlington County, Va., a 911 operator had someone call to ask whether it was "Tuesday or Wednesday" and answered: "That's not an emergency, but it's Tuesday." The county received another such call asking what time it was. It was 3:05 p.m.

Another caller needed help with the seasons.

"OK, I'm confused. We are only in the summertime, or we're still in the wintertime? I'm confused," said the caller.

"It's spring," replied the Arlington County 911 operator.

Although it sounds ridiculous, calls like these aren't unusual, 911 operator Joel Busbee says.

"It's all the time. It's rampant," he said.

After all, there are those who seem to think highly trained 911 operators have nothing better to do than deliver a pizza.

"I'd also like to be connected to Domino's Pizza please, in Arlington," said one 911 caller.

"That's not a, this is 911, 911 is for police and fire emergencies," the Arlington County 911 operator replied.

"Well I can't get through on the Pizza Hut line or 411," the caller said.

"OK, well, ma'am, 911 does not connect you to Domino's Pizza," the operator said.

The Prince George's County, Md., call center gets 150,000 nonemergency calls a year. But Vernon Herron, the county's public-safety director, says it's "a nationwide problem."

"People want to get their problem or the issue resolved as fast as possible, and 911 is a quick-fix solution," he said.

One woman from Prince George's County called 911 for emergency assistance retrieving her car keys from the trash.

She "wanted me to send a police officer to jump in the Dumpster looking for her keys," said Gerber Jimenez, the 911 operator who took the call.

A woman in Southern California called 911 because she didn't have it her way at Burger King.

"I asked them four different times to make me a Western Barbecue Burger. OK, they keep giving me a hamburger with lettuce, tomato and cheese, onions," she told the 911 operator.

She wanted operators to send a police officer.

"Ma'am, we're not gonna go down there and enforce your Western Bacon Cheeseburger," the 911 operator said.

Although these calls sound funny, they are a serious matter.

"They could be keeping us from responding to a true emergency, from saving someone's life," Herron said.

So, when should you call 911? If an accident just happened, and no one else is around, go ahead and call. But if you're on a busy road, chances are someone has already called. And if you see police, fire or ambulance already on the scene or if you hear sirens, obviously there's no need to call 911 -- authorities already know.

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