Unfortunately, many local folks do not understand that 911 is strictly for emergencies only, and that there is another number you can use to call the central dispatch center that leaves 911 lines free to receive calls for fire, police and rescue.
According to Carroll County Sheriff Bob Grudek, the number of calls that come into 911 that shouldn't -- because they are not really emergencies -- is a large number indeed. The number to call to reach dispatch when no one's life or property is in danger is 870-423-7373, the sheriff says.
"This is just something you cannot go over too often," said Grudek. "People need to remember the non-emergency number for dispatch, 423-7373. The dispatchers will take the non-emergency calls on 911, out of courtesy and to be helpful, but it ties up the lines that may be needed by someone in real distress."
Ashley Gastineau, one of the dispatchers, said that they probably hear the words, "This is not an emergency, but..." half a dozen times a day. In fact, dispatchers even take 911 calls from people asking them to look up phone numbers for them.
Why someone would call 911 for directory assistance may seem baffling, but taking a look at the history of phone systems can help.
In the old days, people would dial 0 to reach an operator with the phone company. The operator could connect your call, look up a number, but would also connect you to police or fire. Apparently, some who hear the term 911 operator may assume that the dispatcher is with the phone company, which is not the case. In Carroll County, the dispatcher is a highly specialized and trained county employee, who has to stop everything to refer the caller to the number for directory assistance, which is 411.
The use of 911 as an emergency number dates back to around 1968 in the United States, with the numbers being selected back when rotary dial phones were the standard. People who remember rotary phones may recall that you had numbered holes in a circular dial, and if your finger stayed in the dial after you had spun it to the catch, the rotary action may hesitate or stick and the number would have to be redialed.
When dialing 911, the caller was forced to remove their finger after the nine, and then the subsequent ones were very difficult to mess up. 911 was also very difficult to dial accidentally, unlike today where a phone in a pocket can bring the police when you reach for change.
Today's 911 systems are very advanced, and in Carroll County's 911 Dispatch Office, the dispatchers keep busy with an average of 5,000 calls a month between 911 calls, non-emergency calls to 423-7373 and radio calls from police, fire and ambulance agencies.
The calls come into the system on 911 and an address appears on the screen with land lines, and on cell phones, the cell tower the call is coming from is displayed, and according to Gastineau, within seconds, they can ping for the precise location the call is coming from.
The county has two 911 lines dedicated to land line phones and two for cell phone calls, and this is why it is urgent to get the word out that 423-7373 gets you through to dispatch, but without jamming the four 911 lines.
Gastineau also wanted to get the word out about another problem they face, and that is old and inactive cell phones. When a person buys a new cell phone and deactivate the old one, they give the inactive phone to their kids to play with. Even inactive phones will complete 911 calls. Dispatch gets calls from kids all the time who were just playing. Be sure if you do give a child an old phone, you remove the batteries first.
So remember, 911 is a number set aside for life or property threatening emergencies. If you are looking to contact law enforcement or emergency services, but it is not an actual emergency, call 423-7373. If you need to reach an operator for the phone company, dial 0. If you need to get a phone number, call 411.
Remember it this way: "Fire or gun, call 911; Cat up a tree, 7373."