Calling for help from law enforcement usually requires dialing 911 or the non-emergency number.
But which do you call? Will you get in trouble if you call 911 for a non-emergency?
For some agencies, it depends on the situation and whether you remain on the line instead of hanging up and ignoring attempts to reach you.
“As 911 dispatchers, we truly are the first responder, and it is our job to get all the needed help sent toward a person’s way,” said Taylor Knight, telecommunications operator for the Goodyear Police Department.
To get a better understanding of this, multiple Valley police communications officials provided insight on how dispatch centers handle the 911 and non-emergency lines.
“We treat it as it’s something until we prove it’s nothing,” said Communications Supervisor Kacey Kracke, who has been with the Scottsdale Police Department for 12 years. “Every call that comes in, whether 911 or admin, we treat it as it’s the real thing. We don’t make that pre-biased decision that it could be false or that it could have some other meaning.”
During Fiscal Year 2018-2019, Scottsdale police received 108,947 calls to 911 and 160,581 non-emergency calls, Officer Kevin Watts stated in an email. However, the agency does not track prank calls or non-emergency calls to 911.
As Ms. Kracke suggests, that’s likely because dispatchers are not taking any chances when someone calls 911. Whether it’s an emergency or not, dispatchers are usually working their way through a call to determine the next steps.
“If somebody is having a mental situation or they are in a manic state or experiencing something, is it harder for me to convince them to hang up and call 911 or can I expedite our service by keeping them on the phone and getting the information to them?” Ms. Kracke said. “We have situations where maybe an elderly person is confused and me advising them to hang up and call another number may be beyond their capacity to do so effectively.”
Non-emergency calls to 911
Even though she’s been with Goodyear police for under two years, Ms. Knight already has a bevy of knowledge when it comes to the 911 and non-emergency systems.
She said she has answered 911 calls where people say “This isn’t actually an emergency, but...” and they’ll say their piece.
That’s one of the “Don’t” tips the Mesa Police Department gives about 911 calls. Other non-emergency calls Ms. Knight receives on 911 include barking dogs, loud music or parties, and neighbors talking loudly.
“Some people call in because they genuinely don’t know that the police have a non-emergency line,” she said. “Other times people think that by calling on 911 they will get an immediate response.”
Ms. Kracke recalled such a situation where someone had an extreme fear of birds to the point that the person called 911 so frightened that they couldn’t leave the house because of the birds outside.
“What upsets me may not upset somebody else, and vice versa,” Ms. Kracke said. “So we have to go off that premise. Do people accidentally call 911 when they need information? Yes, and we can certainly say you need to call 411 not 911.”
Ms. Knight said there are cases where people barely learn something has happened to them, like a car burglary from six hours ago. As a result, they have their emotions running high.
“I will usually take their calls on whatever line they called in on,” she said. “The reason for that is a crime actually has occurred, they are understandably upset, and think that 911 is the proper number to call in that instance.”
Hangups can trigger a response
Another issue dispatchers face is when someone calls and hangs up. Police usually say that if someone calls 911 on accident to remain on the line and let the dispatcher know. Otherwise, dispatchers remove themselves from service to call back the caller and investigate the hangup.
“It doesn’t matter how fast you think you hung up. Once those three numbers have been entered into the phone it automatically connects to 911,” Ms. Kracke said. “It does generate a call for service. If we’re not successful in reaching someone based on information received from either a cell phone location — always on a landline — we create a priority call which sends two officers out to confirm whether the situation warrants an emergency or not.”
If you hang up and ignore, or make a false report, you could be looking at up to six months in jail or up to a $2,500 fine, according to Arizona Revised Statutes 13-2907.
But while police advise against 911 hangups, Ms. Kracke said it might be the only option for a victim. One time a person had called and hanged up, leading Scottsdale officers to respond to an active assault.
“We were able to arrive on scene, offer protection to the victim, as well as get the suspect arrested,” Ms. Kracke said. “So we can’t be complacent with those situations because that may be the only thing a person can do who’s in trouble, is just hit 911 before the circumstances change.”
Ms. Knight said she usually advises non-emergency callers to 911 to hang up and call the non-urgent line. However, she said it’s not uncommon for some people to get upset with that request.
While rarer than someone reporting a non-emergency to 911, Chris Virgo, telecommunications supervisor for Goodyear police, says some emergency calls come thru the non-emergency line.
“Some people are hesitant to call 911 because they don’t think what they’re reporting is an emergency, when in fact it could be,” he said.
Swatting calls — which involve false reporting of a crime, sometimes to prank another person — can become a nuisance to dispatchers. Because they are reported as serious in nature, Ms. Kracke said dispatchers designate them as high priority and send out the required resources. However, they eventually turn out to be nothing and have wasted the time of authorities.
While Ms. Kracke said Scottsdale police don’t receive many swatting calls, there are times where people repeatedly call 911 or the non-emergency line.
“You’re usually dealing with a situation where someone is not in their normal state of mind,” Ms. Kracke said. “It could be a situation of over-intoxication, it could be a developmentally-delayed person, someone suffering from some type of manic situation.
“We as a dispatcher work through the call and usually results in officers being sent to that location and doing 1-on-1 assistance and advise them to not continue to call and utilize our resources. But it has happened where someone continued to call and took a dispatcher out of the rotation.”
To ensure 911 calls are addressed quickly, Scottsdale’s dispatchers try to answer calls within 10 seconds.
They have a phone system that will signal an alarm that lets them know they have calls in the queue that are reaching the 10-second time frame.
Controlling the call
On its website, the Mesa Police Department offers several tips on how to use the 911 system. Among them is “Let the operator control the conversation.”
Ms. Kracke agrees.
“There’s a body of knowledge that you need to obtain quickly to provide the most proper response,” she said. “We want a certain amount of questions asked in a certain fashion that fits the crime that you’re reporting. We understand someone’s upset or someone’s is afraid. It also helps to have caller remain focused when we ask a specific question.”
However, when someone has experienced a tragedy or is going through one at the moment, Ms. Kracke said it can be very difficult to help a caller stay focused.
“But again, having that direct line of questioning helps you to help them remain in the moment and stay focused,” she said. “Your voice is what is keeping them calm or safe or helping them get the response that they need. We can’t do a lot because we are over the phone, but having the ability to calm a caller, to get that information, is definitely key to a response, whether it is medical or police or both.”
Trust between children and police
People might be familiar with times where a child calls 911, asks for help with their homework, and the dispatcher helps.
While heartwarming, the call takes that dispatcher out of service for the time being. However, officials say they can address the situation in different ways.
“It depends on the maturity of the child and whether the dispatcher can tell they will understand,” Mr. Virgo said. “Otherwise, the dispatcher will ask to speak to a parent/adult and advise them to speak to the child about the proper use of 911.”
That could lead to a beneficial learning experience, as Ms. Kracke pointed out. She said sometimes a parent wants to teach their children about calling 911. Scottsdale police have encouraged parents during citizens academies or outreach events that officials are happy to accommodate them with that help.
“We just ask the parent call ahead of time to make sure we’re not busy,” Ms. Kracke said. “Because we do want children to know how to call 911, how to seek out help when they need it.
“Our main thing — even if it was a mistake, even if they are playing — is to answer in a positive fashion so they don’t become afraid to call 911.”