March 14, 2013

Editorial: Don't mess with 911 calls


---- — Can you imagine anyone thinking it is a good idea to make trouble for local emergency dispatchers, those ever-helpful workers who send rescuers when trouble erupts? Sadly, it happens many times a month.

Plattsburgh City Police Department recently took action against an offender, and we would like to see law enforcement do that more often, when warranted.

It is typical for Clinton County Emergency Services to receive up to 300 abandoned 911 calls a month. Those are calls that dispatchers answer, only to find that no one is on the other end of the line.

Most people who get that kind of call can just brush off the annoyance and hang up. But the county dispatchers for local fire departments and ambulance squads have to make sure it isn’t a case where the caller is in distress and just can’t speak.

Most of the calls are accidental. Some are what many people refer to, unappealingly, as a “butt dial,” where someone sits on a cellphone, causing it to dial by mistake. Other abandoned calls are children playing with a phone and calling 911 by mistake.

Craig Scholl, senior emergency communicator for Clinton County Emergency Services, tells us that abandoned calls typically tie up dispatchers until they can verify that no emergency exists. “This can be five to 30 minutes in time,” he said, “all while dealing with the everyday emergencies that keep coming in.”

But some calls aren’t innocent errors; they are from misguided people who are purposely trying to cause problems for emergency dispatchers.

Early on Feb. 28, Clinton County Emergency Services called City Police to say that they were receiving numerous non-emergency calls from an apparently drunk man. They had told the man several times that the 911 line was for emergencies only, but he persisted in calling.

With help from Emergency Services, City Police were able to find the 24-year-old Plattsburgh man walking near his home on South Peru Street. They charged him with second-degree aggravated harassment, a misdemeanor.

Dispatchers appreciated the support from City Police. We agree that it is appropriate to press charges in a case where it is apparent that someone is intentionally trying to cause problems.

When an actual emergency takes place, dispatchers need to act fast. They have decisions to make about what responders need to be sent and how many. They don’t want to rush paid or volunteer personnel out to an emergency that doesn’t actually exist.

There’s not much that can be done to prevent prank calls by a few fools with too much time on their hands and too little maturity in their brains.

But parents and schools can make sure children are educated about the importance — and sanctity — of the 911 call, so the majority of people will use it for the intended, crucial service.