TAMPA — If they didn't waste valuable resources, take the time of public servants and distract those hired to protect and serve the rest of us, some of the non-emergency calls made to 911 dispatchers in Tampa would be downright funny.
Tampa police say at least half of the 911 calls the department receives have nothing to do with life and death emergencies.
Legitimate calls include reports of serious events like car wrecks, houses on fire or crimes in progress. What doesn't constitute an emergency are questions about inheritance taxes, daylight savings time and a complaint that your roommate just grabbed a beer out of your hand.
Dispatchers once got a call from a guy at the airport who said his electronic entry key wouldn't work on his car. He wanted to know what he should do.
On the department's Facebook page, police have begun posting such 911 calls, though the names have been deleted to protect the innocent and blissfully ignorant. The calls can bring up a chuckle, but there is a serious undercurrent here.
Among the more flagrant misuses of the 911 emergency line was a clearly inebriated woman who called around 3 a.m. in March 2009, complaining initially of a drug deal, then a domestic disturbance. Then the real reason emerged.
The conversation spanned three different calls, all within a half-hour period. Here's the edited version:
“What's going on?” the dispatcher asks.
“There was an argument,” the woman slurs. “I don't want to go to jail and he doesn't want to go to jail.”
“You are just arguing?”
“What are you arguing about?” the very patient dispatcher asks.
“Beer? Are there any weapons there?”
“He just took my beer out of my hand.”
The woman asks for help.
“Please,” she says, “he took my beer and he bought my beer for me.”
The woman made two calls after that, each getting more agitated, to the point where she was screaming for someone to come arrest her.
“Come ... lock me up. I'll go no problem.”
Some calls aren't as dramatic, but still of the non-emergency type.
An example of a call made on the first Saturday in November in an abridged version:
“Tampa 911, what is your emergency,” the dispatcher asks.
“There's no emergency,” the caller says. “I'd like to ask you a question. Do you turn the clock an hour ahead or back?” “It's an hour back.”
All hilarity aside, police say such calls take up scare resources, and that's why the department is drawing attention to the issue.
“It's easy to laugh,” said police spokeswoman Andrea Davis, “But it is a serious matter and if people are driving through or live in the city, we're asking them to please program the non-emergency phone number into their phones. The number is (813) 231-6130.”
While a lot of calls are non-emergency, she said, they still may be appropriate for 911.
“Like kittens in the sewer technically is not an emergency,” she said, though some would disagree. Reporting a crime may not be an emergency either, like break-ins of cars or homes, or vandalism of property, but they are considered appropriate for the emergency line.
If it isn't a pressing matter, people should call the non-emergency line, she said.
“We don't want to discourage people from calling 911,” she said. “If you have an emergency or something that requires police assistance, call 911. If you're in doubt, call 911. We don't want to discourage that.
“You don't need to call 911 to ask when to set clocks back or about an inheritance tax or if you were served cold food at a restaurant. Not only are they not emergencies, they are not police matters.”
When people who live in the city call 911 on their house phones, the calls go first to Tampa police dispatchers. Ditto for cell phone users calling from within the city limits. Davis said dispatchers say half of their calls, at least, are non-emergencies.
“Some say 65 percent, 70 percent,” she said.
Occasionally people are charged with misusing the 911 system, but they usually are flagrantly calling over and over for no good reason. The woman who called about her roommate snatching the beer our of her hand called three times, and at the end, in a profanity-laced scream, ordered police to come arrest her. Police obliged, Davis said.
“She was not charged the first time, she was not charged the second time,” Davis said. “She was charged the third time she called. It was a clear misuse of 911. If someone calls 911 innocently and they should be calling the non-emergency number, they will not be charged.”
Like the recent 911 call made by a man from the long-term parking lot of Tampa International Airport who told the dispatcher his electronic key wouldn't unlock his car door.
He had to manually open the door with an old-fashioned key.
“Is it something I need to worry about?” he asked a nonplussed dispatcher. “The door didn't open up. I opened it with a key and the alarm did not go off.
“You haven't tried to start it?” the dispatcher asks.
“No, I'm not sure what's going on. It might be the battery is dead? Should I try to turn on the battery?”
“That's completely up to you, sir.”
The man started the car and the dispatcher suggested he have a mechanic look under the hood.
A few weeks ago, a woman called Tampa 911 with an unusual request. Here's the shortened transcript:
“I'd like to ask you a question,” she begins. “Do you have to pay an inheritance tax if you inherit money? Is there an inheritance tax in Tampa?”
“Ma'am,” the dispatcher says, “this is for life and death emergencies only.”
“Where can I find that information?” “The courthouse, or tax collector,” the dispatcher says. “I don't know where else to send you.”
“My niece says you don't have to pay an inheritance tax in Tampa.”
“You may not, but this is the police department.”