At a very early age, all American children are taught one very important phone number: 911. Kids have it drilled into their heads--if there’s an emergency, if you’re in trouble, just call 911 and you will get help.
According to California’s 911 dispatchers, many of us learned this lesson a little too well. In growing numbers California’s 911 lines are being flooded with all manner of calls for help. The problem is, a quarter of those calls aren’t for immediate emergencies—like break-ins or heart attacks—they’re for situations that are a little less dire—like lost pets or car troubles.
In an attempt to stem the tide of non-emergency 911 calls, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) is launching a re-education campaign to teach adults that 911 is for true emergencies only, and that it’s vital to know your exact location when calling 911.
Cal OES is teaming up with the Cal Poly University Police and four other pilot departments across California to test out the campaign before rolling it out statewide.
Since the beginning of the school year, Cal Poly PD has tried just about every avenue possible to spread the word. They’ve used radio ads, door hangers, scoreboard ads, a farmers’ market booth, Pandora ads, social media posts, tip cards and magnets for every dorm room, and even paycheck inserts for all Cal Poly employees.
This may seem like a lot of effort to spend on a re-education program, but this message is vital according to Cal Poly PD Communications and Records Manager, Patty Cash-Henning. When a person is calling 911 because their house is on fire, the last thing they want to hear is a busy signal—especially if that dispatcher is only occupied because someone decided that 911 was the number to call to whine about a ticket.
“All dispatch centers are dealing with these same issues,” Cash-Henning said. “It’s really difficult when you’re working one emergency and another 911 comes in. Everyone thinks that their call is important, and we’re not denying that it’s important to them, but it doesn’t necessarily get classed as ‘emergency status.’”
Cash-Henning has had calls from people looking for their pets, asking for directions, complaining (and swearing) about parking tickets, trying to contact professors who aren’t picking up their phones, asking how their children are doing in school, trying to check in on their daughter’s relationships, and many, many other non-emergencies.
While she actually enjoys helping people with their personal emergencies from time to time, Cash-Henning hopes that this campaign will teach people to direct those types of calls to the police department’s main line—756-2281—and keep the 911 line clear for life-or-death emergencies.