Complaints about overcooked meatball subs, peacocks in the front yard, a pharmacy’s business hours -- these are just a few examples of frivolous 911 calls received by emergency dispatchers.
Authorities say these kinds of calls tie up the lines and prevent people in need from getting help. It’s a growing problem, dispatchers say, and they’re trying to clear the airwaves by urging residents to avoid dialing 911 unless there is an emergency.
“It’s so extremely important not to call 911 if it’s not a true emergency,” Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden said.
Golden’s dispatchers recently moved into a new, state-of-the-art 911 center. The center receives about 550,000 calls a year, or about one every minute. Many are emergencies, but they’ve also gotten calls about police activity interfering with the NBA playoffs and turkeys in the front yard.
In some cases, callers can be charged with crimes for misusing the 911 system.
Dispatcher Dawn Duprai estimates that 25 percent of 911 calls in Monmouth County aren’t for emergencies.
“They’re tying up a 911 line with something that could be preventing somebody who is having an emergency from ringing into our center,” Duprai said.
In Fairfield, Conn., dispatchers are facing some of the same issues. A cable outage during a key episode of the TV drama “Breaking Bad” prompted several 911 calls. In that case, some dispatchers took the callers to task over whether they actually had an emergency, like in the following call obtained by NBC 4 New York.
“Hi, I’m just trying to figure out what is going on,” one caller said. “We have no TV.”
“Ma’am, 911 is for life-threatening emergencies,” the dispatcher says.
“I know that,” the caller replies.
“Is this a life-threatening emergency?” the dispatcher asks.
“No,” the caller relents.
Dispatchers there are trying to free up lines by telling people to call their local police department instead.
“It’s literally the difference between someone living and someone dying,” said Fairfield Police Lt. Jame Perez said. “It can be that extreme.”