911 change sensible

Dialing 911 has become such a natural act that people do it for wrong reasons as well as right ones. That has left Sedgwick County grasping at ways to keep 911 lines clear for emergencies, including a commonsense plan to begin cutting off non-emergency 911 callers with a recorded message advising them to seek help elsewhere.

That will still tie up dispatchers’ time, if less of it. And it surely will provoke some callers into redialing 911, defeating the purpose of the change.

But the tactic likely will work for others, and cause them to use better judgment in dialing 911 next time.

It also could prevent a repeat of this year’s July 4 fiasco, when 911 was jammed with so many calls complaining about fireworks that some people reporting a motorcycle crash got a busy signal.

But even after the county starts switching nonemergency callers to the recorded message, its goal should remain using its 9-1-1 Citizen’s Academy and other methods to educate people about when to dial 911.

What qualifies as an emergency: fires, medical emergencies, crimes or any activity, suspicious or otherwise, that could result in harm to a person, animal or property.

What doesn’t qualify: fireworks, most power outages, barking dogs, rude neighbors, hunger pains.

Convincing the public of the proper use of 911 won’t be easy, because many people have the impression that 911 is and always has been the go-to number for law enforcement and fire departments.

Correcting the behavior would be easier if there were a local substitute line to advise people to use in nonemergencies, such as the 311 line that has been implemented in several dozen U.S. communities since the 1990s. Some advertise 311 service with the memorable slogan, “Burning building? Call 911. Burning question? Call 311.” Albuquerque and Kansas City, Mo., have 311 service. It may be time for that smart investment in Wichita and Sedgwick County as well.

Of course, the county’s efforts regarding 911 don’t address Wichita’s problems with fireworks scofflaws and enforcement of its ordinance.

With nearly 20 percent of the 3,555 calls around the past July 4 complaining about fireworks — and with the city also having seen its ozone levels exceed federal limits over the period — the question may not be why so many dial 911 to complain about them but why Wichita continues to pretend its fireworks ordinance is working.