A new law sponsored by Representative McGrady increases the criminal penalties for intentionally misusing the emergency 911 system.
As we all know, dialing “9-1-1” from any phone instantly connects the caller to a dispatch center. From there, highly trained dispatchers direct the appropriate emergency response (fire, police or medical personnel) in order to provide proper assistance. 911 is only to be used in emergency situations.
According to the state’s 911 Board, North Carolina’s emergency dispatch centers (technically known as Primary Public Safety Answering Points or “Primary PSAPs”) answered over 7 million 911 calls in 2014. But not all those calls were actual emergencies.
Fraudulent or frivolous calls to 911 can jam up the switchboard, waste valuable staff time and precious resources, and, most importantly, slow the response times for people faced with actual emergencies.
In order to address those concerns, House Bill 345 now makes it a Class 1 Misdemeanor to knowingly access the 911 system for anything but legitimate emergency purposes.
Class 1 Misdemeanors can carry a four month jail sentence and a substantial fine. To be found guilty of violating this law, a person would have to knowingly access 911 (pocket dialing wouldn’t count) and be aware that their call is not a real emergency. There are no penalties for calling 911 accidentally.
“We definitely want something to back us up — so when we talk to somebody about it, we don’t want them to feel like there’s no penalty or a slap on the hand,” said Brenda Womble, director of the Wilson County Emergency Communications Center, in an interview with the Wilson Times. “We can’t have a misuse of 911 calls because there might be a heart attack call trying to come in on another line.”
Prior to this change, it was only a Class 3 Misdemeanor to knowingly misuse the 911 system; emergency management personnel across the state felt that the old penalty wasn’t tough enough to discourage people from making frivolous or fraudulent calls.
911 calls which do not qualify as being an emergency include: 1) calling about an incident where there is no imminent risk of injury or damage (e.g., a car was broken into the previous night or the caller has been involved in a fender-bender and no one was hurt); 2) Prank calls by adolescents and other miscreants; 3) Diversionary calls; 4) Exaggerated calls (usually an attempt to get a quicker response from police); 5) Intoxicated calls; and 6) “Lonely hearts” calls.
And while these common categories do account for most of the misuse of the 911 system, wacky stories abound in North Carolina’s emergency dispatch centers:
- A Gastonia woman upset with getting the wrong sauce on her flatbread pizza called 911 twice to complain. She ended up being arrested and charged with misuse of the 911 system.1
- A Smithfield teenager called police because she was upset that her mother grounded her and took away her cell phone. She was charged with misusing the 911 system and place under a $2,500 bond.2
- A Wilmington man called 911 to file a police report after a drug dealer allegedly failed to bring him the marijuana and cocaine that he had paid for.3
You can’t make this stuff up.
A Legislative History of North Carolina’s 911 System
In 1989, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the Public Safety Telephone Act — recognizing 911 as a toll free number through which an individual in the State can gain rapid, direct access to public safety aid. The Act became law as North Carolina General Statute Chapter 62A. Local governments were to set a rate and collect a 911 service fee to pay eligible costs associated with providing that direct access to Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP).
When wireless phones became popular, they did not fit the wireline model for providing location information, so in 1998 the Legislature adopted Senate Bill 1242, providing for a 911 Wireless Fund and creation of the Wireless 911 Board. This bill defined the composition of the fund and the requirements for participation. It became law as Article 2 of §62A. During the 2007 legislative session, House Bill 1755 was introduced “to modernize and improve the administration of the State’s 911 system through a statewide 911 Board by ensuring that all voice services contribute to the 911 system and by providing parity in the quality of service and the level of 911 charges across voice communications service providers.”
The bill was passed as Session Law 2007-383, and took effect January 1, 2008. It requires all voice communications service providers to collect a single rate 911 service fee and remit collections to the State 911 Board rather than to the local governments. The State 911 Board distributes funds to the PSAPs based upon criteria set forth in the new law.4
About North Carolina’s 911 Board
The 911 Board was created to consolidate the State’s Enhanced 911 system under a single board with a uniform 911 service charge to integrate the State’s 911 system, enhance efficiency and accountability, and create a level competitive playing field among voice communication technologies.
The 911 Board manages all revenues remitted to the 911 Fund, establishes procedures for disbursement of funds, and advises all voice communications service providers and eligible counties of such procedures. The Board must monitor the revenues generated by the service charge, and if it determines that the rate produces revenue in excess of the amount needed, must reduce the rate. A change in the amount of the rate becomes effective on July 1 of any year. The 911 Board must notify providers of a change in the rate at least 90 days before the change becomes effective. The rate must ensure full cost recovery for voice communications service providers and for primary PSAPs over a reasonable period of time. The 911 Board must report to the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operation, the Revenue Laws Study Commission, and the Joint Legislative Utility Review Commission in February of each odd-numbered year.5
If you’d like to learn more about the 911 Board, you’re in luck. The next meeting of the 911 Board’s Funding Committee is one week from today on Tuesday, February 10 at 2:00 pm.
The meeting will be held in the Banner Elk Room (which sounds fancier than it actually is). The address is 3514A Bush Street in Raleigh (click here for a handy Google Map). Please notify the Board’s Executive Director, Richard Taylor, to ensure available seating. Also contact Mr. Taylor if you would like to participate via web conference.