Home Emergency Management News Resource Management’s Ethical Considerations of Curtailing 911 Calls

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.

Allison G. S. Knox Passionate about the issues affecting ambulances and disaster management, Allison focuses on Emergency Management and Emergency Medical Services policy. Allison has taught at the undergraduate level since 2010. Prior to teaching, she worked in a level-one trauma center emergency department and for a member of Congress in Washington, D.C. She holds four master’s degrees in Emergency Management, National Security Studies, International Relations, and History; a Graduate Certificate in Homeland Security; and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. Allison is an Emergency Medical Technician, Lifeguard, and Lifeguard Instructor, and is trained in Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue. She serves on the Board of Trustees for Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society as Chancellor of the Southeast Region, Vice Chair of the Tactical Emergency Medical Support Committee with the International Public Safety Association, and serves as the Advocacy Coordinator of Virginia with the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians. She is also a member of several committees including the Editorial Committee with APCO, the Rescue Task Force Committee with the International Public Safety Association, and the Advocacy Committee with the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians. She also serves as Chair of the Leadership Development Program for the 2020 Pi Gamma Mu Triennial Convention. Allison has published several book reviews and continues to write about issues affecting ambulances, emergency management, and homeland security.