False 911 emergency calls continue to be a problem for police in Canada despite changes in cellphone design that are expected to reduce cases of inadvertent “pocket” dialing.
Concerns about how such calls bog down emergency dispatch centres prompted the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police to complain to Ottawa about cellphones that can dial 911 with a single button push.
The wireless industry responded with assurances that cellphones with that feature are no longer being sold and those still in use will be gradually replaced by consumers.
But problems persist, including nuisance calls from people who dial 911 in non-emergency situations.
Saskatoon Police Chief Clive Weighill, president of the chiefs association, said bogus calls are a waste of time and resources.
“We had a call here – she forgot her pastries at Safeway and wanted us to go pick them up for her,” Weighill said.
“Sometimes you just get calls you really shake your head at. Why would anybody phone 911 for that?”
Weighill estimates that about one-third of the estimated 62,000 emergency 911 calls made in Saskatoon last year were either misdialed or for non-emergencies.
The Edmonton Police Service says of 388,736 calls made to 911 last year, 152,320 were not for emergencies – about 39 per cent.
Christine Lyseng, Edmonton’s 911 supervisor, said people have called in to report a lost dog and for a parking dispute.
One call was over a noise in the fireplace.
“While my operators are tied up with the bogus calls, someone with a life-threatening emergency is trying to get through,” she said.
Another challenge is false 911 calls made by young children, including babies, from old cellphones that parents give their kids to play with.
Lyseng said as long as a cellphone has a battery charge, it can call 911 even if it no longer has a subscription with a service provider.
“Quite often we will hear babies gurgling, teething, gnawing on these phones. Sometimes we can convince a toddler to let us speak to Mommy or Daddy.”
Lyseng said emergency operators pride themselves on answering 911 calls within seconds and must phone back every false call to ensure that it is not an actual emergency.
Some provinces have legislation that allows for people to be charged for making false calls. In the United States it is a felony in some jurisdictions with fines of up to $10,000.
Weighill said police services in Canada favour awareness campaigns that encourage people to call a different phone number for non-emergencies, such as 311 in some cities.
The Edmonton Police Service is using social media and an ad campaign this spring to raise awareness. It’s the third time police have reached out to the public about 911 since 2012.
Weighill said a new 911 system under review by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission should help.
“What we are looking at for the future of next-generation 911 services will be so people can text in their 911 call so we can get it in the call centre that way.”