Resource Management’s Ethical Considerations of Curtailing 911 Calls
By Allison G. S. Knox
Contributor, EDM Digest
One of the biggest frustrations for local public safety officials is responding to a 911 call that is not an emergency. Not only are resources compromised when fire, police and emergency medical services respond to non-emergencies, but receiving a large number of these calls strains public safety budgets.
Because of these issues, some towns and cities have asked citizens not to call 911 unless they have a true emergency. While this concept would make the volume of 911 calls more manageable, it also presents a few ethical concerns. Is it a good idea to tell citizens to stop calling 911 for non-emergencies when the concept of an emergency is subjective?
Emergency Situations Require a Subjective Determination
What constitutes an emergency differs from person to person, especially when the 911 caller is not trained in emergency management or emergency medicine.
Furthermore, when a layman is faced with something out of his normal routine, he or she might call it an emergency. However, a well-trained paramedic might determine that the incident is not a life-threatening emergency.
False 911 Calls Compromise Resources and Strain Budgets
Responding to non-emergency or frivolous 911 calls with EMT or fire equipment creates a serious situation when an actual emergency arises at the same time. It delays first responders in situations when arriving as soon as possible can make the difference between life and death.
Ethical Considerations of Responding to All 911 Calls
Many public safety agencies are plagued by frequent non-emergency 911 calls from the same people. The problem is often systemic and presents all sorts of public safety and emergency management problems. By asking these frequent callers to stop calling 911, emergency response agencies are hoping to alleviate some of the resource and budgetary problems these calls create.
It is difficult to determine a true emergency over the phone at times. In one instance, the police told a woman to stop calling 911 after she had made numerous calls about an argument she and her family were having. The police believed her calls were excessive. Hours later, she and her son were murdered and four others were wounded.
So what about the practical considerations if actual emergencies are missed because some people are afraid to call 911? What if someone can’t distinguish between cardiac pain and a pulled muscle? In that situation, is it a better choice to call 911 or wait for a physician?
It is tempting to urge citizens not to dial 911 unless it is a true emergency. But local governments must also consider the ethical issues involved in deterring such calls.
Ultimately, local governments and 911 agencies will need to determine what procedures work best for them, while taking these ethical considerations into account.