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Misuse of 911 is local, national problem, says Turner

Monday, July 31, 2006

Part 1 of 2

By IVY HERRON

missivy1964@yahoo.com

It sounds simple: In case of emergency, dial 911. But not everyone knows what constitutes an emergency, according to 911 Director John Turner.

"This isn't just a Clay County problem. People misuse 911 service around the nation every day," Turner said. "It's not a constant problem, but when it does happen, it's frustrating."

The 911 system is designed to be a centralized communication center where people in need of emergency assistance can dial a simple number for immediate response of the police or fire departments or emergency medical assistance.

"911 is not intended to be used to obtain weather reports, report power outages, ask for directions or find out if school has been canceled," he said. "It is for emergency use only. It's illegal to use it for anything else."

Indiana Code 36-8-16.5-49 states that a person commits a class A misdemeanor if they use 911 service for any purpose other than seeking emergency assistance. If charged and convicted, a person could face up to a year in prison and a fine of not more than $5,000.

No one in Clay County has been charged for misuse of the 911 system since it was implemented in 1996, but there have been times when frustrated law enforcement personnel have wanted to see violators arrested.

Chief 911 Dispatcher Missy Gambill says dispatchers try to be understanding when callers misuse the system, but in the middle of an emergency it can be difficult to remain courteous.

"When you're in the middle of an emergency situation and someone calls dispatch who is not having an emergency, it's very frustrating," Gambill said. "There's just not any time to deal with that type of call."

Dispatchers try to be understanding and helpful when the 911 service is misused, but they do not have time to be an "information desk" to the public.

Some of the most recent incidents of misuse Gambill says 911 dispatchers have encountered include a complaint about an ambulance blocking the entrance to Forest Park during the Brazil Rotary Club's 4th of July Celebration, various questions about why traffic blocked S.R. 59, a request for directions to a yard sale, people seeking information about general phone numbers and people wanting to talk to specific officers that might be on duty.

Clay County Emergency Management Director Bryan Husband's job is to help coordinate agencies during natural disasters, chemical spills and acts of terrorism. He says misuse of 911 service during a major catastrophe -- like asking about damage in other areas, reporting fallen tree limbs or seeking general information -- could cause more problems for emergency personnel.

"These types of (non-emergency) calls keep the real emergency calls from getting through," Husband said. "When people use 911 as a convenience instead of for emergencies like it is intended, it can endanger lives."

Husband says people need to remember emergency response personnel will be busy responding to the cases most in need in an emergency.

"If the non-emergency numbers are busy, keep calling until you get through," Husband said. "Be patient; most likely you're not the only person being affected at the time by whatever is happening."

With resources spread thin on a daily basis, law enforcement agencies encourage reports of criminal or suspicious activity by the public.

"The 911 system is there for emergency purposes," Clay County Sheriff Mike Heaton said. "But if there's a crime happening, people need to call."

People making non-emergency reports should contact the general switchboards of the Clay County Sheriff's (446-2535) or the Brazil City Police (446-2211) departments, where dispatchers are available 24 hours a day.



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