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911, What Is Your (Non) Emergency?

by Gayla Ber about a year ago in fact or fiction

Why calling 911 for non-emergencies hurts us all.

911, What Is Your (Non) Emergency?

This morning I read an article about a call that a local police department received on Saturday, July 20, that blew my mind. It seems a resident of the town the department is located in called 911 because the ice cream truck was parked outside his home for what he considered "too long."

Saturday in the Toronto and Greater Toronto Areas was 34 degrees Celsius. With humidity, it felt like 44. For American readers, that's a temperature that felt like 111.2 degrees Fahrenheit. It was the middle of the hottest day on record for this year so far.

What do you want on the hottest day of the year? Especially if you're a kid with a couple of bucks in your pocket? An ice cream! A popsicle. Something COLD.

This is just the latest in a spate of non-emergent calls that have come to Ontario's 911 system this year.

Lately, the most reported calls coming through 911 have been about the Amber Alert system. If you aren't aware of how this system has been working, when police in Ontario—in any region of Ontario— put out an Amber Alert for a missing child or children, an alert is sent to pretty much every mobile phone in Ontario with a loud siren-like noise to—oddly enough—alert people to the missing child. The most recent one was at 3 AM on July 11, 2019. A grandfather went missing with his two grandsons. They had last been seen around 3 PM on July 10 in Newmarket. Speculation was that the grandfather may have had some form of dementia and had gotten lost. Because he wasn't considered a risk to the children, an Amber Alert wasn't immediately activated. As time went on, and the three had been missing for twelve hours, an Amber Alert was activated. Which meant many people got the alert at 3 AM.

And thus, the 911 calls began. Again.

This wasn't the first time Ontarians were woken up in the dead of night by an Amber Alert. Another alert in May awakened people.

Though inconvenient, both the July and May alerts resulted in the missing children being found AS A DIRECT RESULT of the Amber Alert system.

It can be inconvenient to be woken up from a dead sleep by a loud siren suddenly emanating from your phone. I know the one in May scared the pants off me. I was working an overnight shift when the July alert went off, so it not only didn't scare me or wake me up, I didn't even hear it since my phone was on silent.

Which, people, IS AN OPTION! If you don't want to be woken up by an Amber Alert, because you're not going to get out of bed to help look for the missing kid anyway, put your phone on vibrate! Oh, you use your phone as your alarm clock? So do I. My alarm still goes off at a decent volume to wake me up, but overnight notifications don't make a sound.

Calling 911 over an ice cream truck, only getting nine instead of 10 chicken nuggets (yes, that was a real call) or because you were woken up because someone else's precious child has gone missing, is not the solution. This ties up an essential and overburdened system and keeps people who actually need to access 911 from getting through to an operator.

Case in point: recently on my way home from a volunteer orientation with my daughter, we stopped at a McDonald's drive-through for a snack. She hadn't eaten all day, I was thirsty and it's summer, so drinks are $1. As we were waiting at the window for our order, the staff kept popping their head out the window looking towards the nearby intersection and saying something about an accident. We hadn't seen or heard anything, but as we approached the intersection, we saw a Jeep on its roof and a second car in the intersection. I'm a Police Foundations student with a first responder level First Aid training. I pulled to the side to see if I could offer any assistance to the accident victims, as emergency services were not yet on site.

In the time that I was there, talking with the women in the upside-down car (both were conscious, though one looked like she may have been heading into shock. There was someone on her side of the car talking to her, there were at least four or five other people attempting to call 911.

Once emergency services arrived, and I was able to tell them what medical information I'd gotten (nothing revealing, just checked that neither of them had any illnesses or recent surgeries that could make a difference in treatment), a woman came up to me and said she'd tried to call 911 four times, but couldn't get through. It was someone else, also trying to get through, who managed to get 911 activated.

Just imagine it is your family member in that upside-down car. Or in the second car (he was also conscious when I had a chance to look over at him). Or it's your child who has gone missing. Or any member of your family. Imagine that you can't get through to emergency services because someone is on the line complaining that the ice cream truck is outside for too long.

It's something to think about. And seriously people. Think hard about it. Because one day, it COULD be you in need of a service that you're complaining about.

My final two cents (do I have to change that to a nickel since we no longer use pennies in Canada?)... People who abuse the 911 system by making these non-emergent calls—they need to be fined.

fact or fiction
Gayla Ber
Gayla Ber
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Gayla Ber

Writing is a bit of a passion for me. I enjoy sharing ideas and opinions. I'm not afraid to engage in conversation that contradicts my opinion, but I fight on the side of science.

See all posts by Gayla Ber