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911 to ask some callers to call someone else

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Oct. 28, 2011, at 3:06 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011, at 6:47 a.m.

You should call 911 to report:

* A medical emergency

* A fire

* A crime

* Any activity harmful to a person, animal or property

* Suspicious activity that could result in harm to a person, animal or property

When you shouldn't call 911:

Don't call 911 for driving directions.

You also should not call 911 to report:

* Power outages (unless you use medical equipment that requires power)

* Downed tree limbs that aren't a threat

* Loud noises or nuisances during peak times such as New Year's Eve or the Fourth of July

* The use of legal fireworks

The hungry guy on house arrest who called 911 to ask whether a police officer would go grocery shopping for him?

Uh, not a real emergency.

Sedgwick County 911 is cracking down — as much as it can — on non-emergency calls that threaten to clog the lines reserved for real emergencies such as heart attacks, fires, car crashes and domestic violence.

Randy Bargdill, the county's emergency communications director, unveiled Friday a new message that people calling 911 for non-emergencies will get after dispatchers have assessed that no one is in real danger.

In the case of the guy above?

Dispatchers suggested the man call his probation officer or the United Way.

Undaunted, he pressed.

"Can you bring me a burger or something?"

No, the dispatcher said. Police would not drop off a burger.

While bizarre calls like the burger order occur from time to time, more common are non-emergency calls during storms that cause power outages. During a storm Aug. 3, dispatchers fielded 500 more calls than they do during a typical day.

And this past Fourth of July, people calling 911 to complain about fireworks messed up the system so much that people trying to report a motorcycle crash got a busy signal.

The motorcyclist later died.

Of the Fourth of July problem, Bargdill said, "I firmly believe that it had nothing to do with the fact that we don't have enough 911 lines or don't have enough dispatchers staffed. People in our community have forgotten that 911 is a precious resource."

Bargdill said the county is trying to better educate the public about 911.

"We do a good job of public education in the elementary school age but not with adults," Bargdill said. "We have developed and already graduated a few classes in our 911 citizens academy."

The academy started about two months ago. The two-week class gives residents a chance to see how 911 operates.

The class is 12 hours, divided into three four-hour sessions. The first two sessions take place on consecutive Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon, and the final observation session is scheduled with each student. People can apply for the academy on the county's website, www.sedgwickcounty.org. People must pass a criminal background check to participate.

In addition to public outreach, 911 has "kind of tweaked the playbook just a little bit," Bargdill said.

Whenever the 911 system becomes overwhelmed, dispatchers implement what they call an "emergency rule."

They don't call back hang-ups from cell phones as most are caused by accidental dialing. They also run through an abbreviated version of questions for medical emergencies.

The newest part of the "emergency rule" will be a recording people will hear when they call with non-emergencies.

Bargdill joked that the county couldn't get James Earl Jones, an actor famous for his deep voice, to do the recording, so it got the "next best thing." Sherdeill Breathett Sr., a neighborhood economic developer for the county who also is a minister, recorded the message.

It says that 911 is reserved for public safety and true emergencies and asks the caller to look at their local phone directory for guidance on where to call.

Dispatchers still will assess calls before sending people to the message.

". . . when we determine it isn't an emergency call, we'll be able to send them off to a recorded message that provides them some information about consulting their local directory," Bargdill said.

That message will go live later this year, probably in time for New Year's Eve.

The county also is working with AT&T to develop a non-emergency line for people to call about issues such as fireworks.

About 3,555 calls came in to 911 from midnight the Sunday before the Fourth of July to 3 p.m. the day after the holiday. During a typical 24-hour period, the center averages 1,200 to 1,500 calls.

Out of the 3,555 calls, nearly 20 percent were calls complaining about fireworks.

Last year, the county received 440,000 emergency phone calls and 178,000 non-emergency calls. That averages to 1,205 emergency calls a day or an average of 1,693 calls per day including those for non-emergencies.

Through Sept. 30 this year, the county has fielded 339,000 emergency calls and 120,000 non-emergency calls. The county expects to take more calls this year than last.

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com.

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