To Call or Not to Call 9-1-1, That is the Question

Posted On Sunday April 14, 2019

Peel Regional Police 9-1-1 operators regularly receive calls that are not emergencies and are a misuse of the system.  To give you a taste of how often this occurs, let us look at the number of 9-1-1 calls that were made to Peel Regional Police in January and February of 2019. Our call takers received a total of 65,547 calls to 9-1-1, of those, 28,298 were misuse calls. That means that 36% of the calls received were not emergencies and could have been handled another way.

This issue poses a challenge for call takers and increases the risk to public safety as each misuse call delays the response time for police, fire fighters and paramedics to attend actual emergencies. Imagine someone is suffering a life threatening emergency; they dial 9-1-1 for help and hear a busy signal. The importance of using the correct number cannot be stressed enough. If it’s not an emergency but you still need police, call 905-453-3311. 

We had the opportunity to speak with one of our veteran call takers, Sarah Runge, to discuss the misuse and proper use of 9-1-1.  Sarah stressed the importance of calling 9-1-1 when there is an actual emergency and knowing your location.

What is an emergency?           

"A 9-1-1 emergency is a situation in progress, so it’s happening right now. It’s a theft in progress, it’s somebody trying to break into a car, it’s a fire and it’s someone in immediate danger and needing medical attention. If it happened yesterday or you thought about it for a few hours first, it is not an emergency.  Consider using the non-emergency number by calling 905-453-3311 and ask for communications.”

Still not sure what an emergency is?  Here are some examples that Sarah shared:

“I have had people call in to 9-1-1 asking how to start their oven, hoping that we can talk them through it, how to work their smartphone or their computer because they have forgotten their password and believe that we have a database to look up that information. There have been callers dialing 9-1-1 in order to obtain the non-emergency number (905-453-3311) and then because they don’t have a pen, they hang up saying they will Google it instead. We have even had calls from potential new recruits asking how to become a police officer.”

As frustrating as it is receiving misuse calls on 9-1-1, Sarah, like all of the Peel Regional Police call takers, are highly trained in handling legitimate emergency situations. Sarah spoke about the hesitation people have when calling 9-1-1 for missing people.

“Sometimes callers are timid to call 9-1-1 to report missing people. They begin a search for a couple of hours before calling because they feel they are bothering us. Missing persons are a high priority for us and we need the call to come in right away so we can get out as fast as we can to start looking for them. Just the other day, we had a great example of this when parents placed a call to 9-1-1 within five minutes of their 3 year-old walking away in the area of a shopping mall.  With the hand-in-hand efforts of Peel Police, security, store staff and an observant member of the public calling 9-1-1 upon discovering the 3-year-old attempting to cross the street on their own, the family was re-united.”

Lastly, we want to remind you that when someone calls 9-1-1 we need to know where to go to help you. Location! Location! Location! As Sarah said, “When you call from your cell phone and you don’t tell us where you are, it’s going to take me a long time to get you help. We may have a general area of where you are but if you are having an emergency, it slows us down if you don’t give us your location. If you can only give us one thing, make sure it’s your exact location.”

Establishing your location in a stressful situation or in an unfamiliar place can be tricky.  Try using these helpful tips:

  1. Try to remain calm.
  2. Use what you see. A licence plate on a vehicle in a driveway, a piece of mail provides an address, a street sign, buildings, anything around you can help.
  3. If you can’t see anything, what do you hear? Traffic, birds, water, people, music, etc. 
  4. If you see someone, ask if they can assist you.

If you have any more questions about what an emergency is, please visit When to Call 911.

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