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Florida Dispatchers Frustrated Over 911 Abuse

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The voice, gravelly and slightly slurred, came over the 911 line.

"I want to talk to somebody in drug enforcement," it demanded. "This woman, she took my booze from me. She took my bottle of booze and I want it back."

For more than 20 minutes, Ronald Ernest Jones, 60, of Pompano Beach, Fla., badgered emergency dispatchers over a claim his landlady had stolen his liquor.

In Delray Beach, Benjamin Dewer, 26, twice called 911 in the early morning hours. "I need a ride and I am hungry," he told dispatchers.

Both cases resulted in arrests for abuse of an emergency line, a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. They also represent a perpetual problem that can stem from loneliness, mental confusion, anger or drunken dialing: Sad and wacky calls from folks who risk arrest by dialing 911 when they don't have an emergency.

Such calls may annoy dispatchers, but they are only a small portion of the 240 million 911 calls received nationally each year. The Broward sheriff's office fields 2.5 million 911 calls annually, half of those non-emergency ones. In Palm Beach County, the sheriff's office handles about 1 million calls a year, and 30 percent to 40 percent are non-emergency ones.

Of those non-emergency calls, officials say, harassing or troublesome calls are a small percentage.

"We do have the frivolous 911 calls: 'I can't find my remote control.' 'Can you tell me when the electricity's going to come back on?'" said Robin Schmidt, communications manager for the Palm Beach County sheriff's office. "Some people just get confused. A lot of them, they are either intoxicated or on drugs."

Others just don't seem to understand the concept of 911: call only in case of emergency. Like the woman who last year called three times to complain a Fort Pierce McDonald's had run out of Chicken McNuggets. Or the St. Petersburg men who called multiple times, one seeking someone to have sex with him, the other complaining his mom had taken his beer away.

All three were arrested, but that only happens in extreme cases of 911 abuse.

"We generally try to educate people and inform them that their call is not an emergency," said Jim Leljedal, spokesman for the Broward sheriff's office. "It's when we have these outrageous abuses that you have to take action."

For Broward dispatchers, who handle 22 cities and 17 fire departments, many of the oddball calls come from kids.

"We get those every day, when kids pick up the phone and dial 911 just on a dare or to see what happens," Leljedal said. "What happens is they get a lecture from a deputy."

Many non-emergency calls are innocent misuse, rather than abuse, of the system.

"You get people who call and ask what time it is. Lonely old people want conversation," said Kim Rubio, Broward Sheriff's Office communications manager. "Sometimes you get cuckoo birds that call you all the time and make all sorts of false claims."

Dispatchers use discretion and a case-by-case assessment. Usually they will gently inform the caller that 911 is reserved for emergencies and direct them to a non-emergency line.

"You will have mental conditions in people that cause them to call 911," Rick Jones, operation issues director for the National Emergency Number Association, said from his Rockford, Ill., office. "Others misuse or just repeatedly call it."

When that happens, dispatchers often will assign an officer to investigate. "If they're calling more than two or three times we'll send somebody out there," said Rubio.

Officers typically will impress upon the caller that it's illegal to dial 911 capriciously. If the caller still persists, an arrest is imminent.

"Those should be prosecuted to the fullest extent," said Stephen O'Conor, president of the emergency number association and assistant communications manager for West Palm Beach police. "There is a possibility that they could jeopardize others" by tying up 911 lines.

Emergency lines usually are sufficient enough to capture all incoming calls, even if one dispatcher is busy dealing with a junk call. The strain on the system can come when officers' time is spent dealing with a troublesome caller rather than more important matters.

Curiously, many people, often the elderly, won't call 911 when they should, fearful of monopolizing an emergency line. "A lot of these people that have true emergencies are spending time looking up the non-emergency number," Rubio said.

Other times folks will call about a perceived emergency, such as the older woman who wanted paramedics to help uncap her pill bottle. But what constitutes a true emergency can be subjective, and dispatchers must err on the side of caution.

"For an elderly person living alone, a lot of little things could be an emergency," Leljedal said. "If an elderly woman living alone can't open her own medicine bottle, there's probably a need there for social services."

As long as folks drink, and as long as 911 remains easy to access, emergency professionals say, crank calls will be dialed in. But it's all part of the system.

"The good that we do certainly outweighs the inconvenience of having to respond to nonessential calls," O'Conor said. "You have to take the bad with the good."



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