“Hello police – what’s the time?”: Nuisance 999 calls can delay responses to real emergencies

SINGAPORE: Every time a 999 operator picks up the phone, there is more than a 50 per cent chance that there is, in fact, no police emergency.

Instead, there could be any number of reasons behind the call. Just ask Ms Rafa’ah Hamzah. The 28-year-old has been an emergency communications officer for five years, and she has had her fair share of strange calls.

ra’afah on phone

“Could you book me a taxi?” one person asked late at night. Taxis are not stopping for me, complained another.

Ms Rafa’ah even listened as one person complained that clothes hanging to dry were dripping water from above, while another asked the police to pay his electricity bills because they were too expensive.

Then there are people who call and laugh or simply stay silent before hanging up. However, this is no laughing matter.

Out of the 683,352 calls in the first half of this year, 57 per cent were nuisance calls or not police matters, with the vast majority being the former. The same trend was reflected in 2017, with 58 per cent of more than 1 million calls not being police emergencies.

NUISANCE, NON-POLICING CALLS COULD DELAY RESPONSE TO EMERGENCIES

Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP)Raja Mohamed Shahir Raja Mohamed Said, who is the officer-in-charge of the operations room that responds to 999 calls, said that non-emergency calls take up precious time.

Speaking to Channel NewsAsia at the Police Operations Command Centre in Novena, ASP Shahir said each time a call comes in, the operators have to treat it as an emergency case, whether or not it is. 

"Even if it’s a repeated caller, we will treat each call as genuine, because we never know when he or she would need police assistance," he said.

The consequences of people using 999 for trivial matters could be serious.

“For every nuisance call that we receive, there will be someone else who has an actual emergency, who has to wait for their call to be answered," ASP Shahir said.

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He explained that every second counts. "We do not want a situation where a person who really needs police assistance is unable to get through the line because the operators are engaged answering non-police related calls,” he said.asp shahirOfficer-in-charge of the emergency hotline team ASP Raja Mohamed Shahir Raja Mohamed Said urged members of the public to call 999 only when there’s a crime in progress or somebody is committing a crime close-by, or if someone is seriously injured or is in danger. (Photo: Jalelah Abu Baker)

CHILDREN PART OF THE PROBLEM

Children are behind some of these calls. It is not uncommon for children to call 999 using their parents’ mobile phones or home landlines, ASP Shahir said.  

They may call and laugh or make up situations, he said.

Ms Ra’afah said: "For example, there have been prank calls on fires, prank calls on theft, and prank calls on robberies. They are quite clever. They can just create stories.”

Some of these cases were found to be pranks after officers went to the scene, with no incident to be found.

“For children who are laughing or playing with the phone, then suddenly hang up, we would definitely call back, and ask them whether there is any police assistance required,” Ms Ra’afah said.

Even if there is silence, they call back. Sometimes, they end up on the line with parents who are unaware that their children have been playing with their phones. They then take the chance to inform them and urge them to educate their children not to misuse the 999 line.

Older children may use public phones in their schools. When they do that, the police will suggest that the school’s management should educate the students that 999 is an emergency hotline, ASP Shahir said.

Sometimes, people just do not know who else to call. ASP Shahir said elderly people who do not know which agency they should call get in touch with the police. In these cases, operators may point them in the right direction. 

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People also call 999 in medical emergencies, in which case the call is referred quickly to the Singapore Civil Defence Force. Still, the police urged the public to call 995 during medical emergencies.

When asked why operators entertain non-policing calls instead of turning them away, ASP Shahir said: “If they are turned away without an answer, it may not stop them from calling 999 again, and the call gets answered by another operator.”

Some of them do not know that these calls are being made, as the calls are being made through the “emergency call” function on smartphones, he added.

“That tends to be activated very frequently without the person even realising,” ASP Shahir said.

STILL ALWAYS READY FOR EMERGENCIES

When the calls are emergencies, operators have to keep composed, dealing with panicky people who may be incoherent or screaming.

Ms Ra’afah remembers one challenging call she took when she was new to the job. It was a call from a woman had been robbed. She was screaming and shouting on the phone, and it took about two minutes to calm her down, Ms Ra’afah recalled.

“We have to be fast, because the division will have to dispatch officers,” she said.

The operators feed information to officers on the ground – information that can be processed quickly so the best response to any incident can be implemented. The information that operators receive also determines the amount and type of resources needed.

“For example in a case of domestic dispute, if we know previously there were instances of violence, then at least our officers are mentally prepared that they are going to deal with somebody who could get violent,” ASP Shahir said.

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While Ms Ra’afah remembers the call for being challenging, the calls that get to her are those that involve victims of sex crimes.

To cope with her emotions, she confides in her fellow colleagues. Due to the confidentiality of the calls, she is not allowed to divulge the details to anyone else, including her family members.

Ms Ra’afah also takes satisfaction in cases in which the perpetrator is apprehended and dealt with, as she is able to track the progress of cases.

CONSEQUENCES FOR REPEAT OFFENDERS

When asked what is being done to improve the current situation of nuisance calls, ASP Shahir said that the police engage everyone who might have triggered an accidental nuisance call and advise them on how to prevent a re-occurrence.

And for those who repeatedly make nuisance calls, they could be given formal warning letters, visited by an officer or even prosecuted, he added.Police call centreOfficers at the Police Operations Command Centre. (Photo: Jalelah Abu Baker)

In one case, it was a man who called the hotline usually when he was drunk.

Gurcharan Singh, a 61-year-old cleaner who had been prank calling the police since 2000 was last month sentenced to three years in jail

While Gurcharan was convicted, the police acknowledged that it can be a challenge to trace and apprehend some culprits.

Meanwhile, ASP Shahir urged members of the public to call 999 for the right reasons, so the police are not distracted from emergencies.

“We urge members of the public to call 999 only when there’s a crime in progress or somebody is committing a crime close-by or someone is seriously injured or is in danger,” he said.

Ms Ra’afah also had a message for the public.

“Please call the relevant agencies for cases not under the police purview. Parents, do educate your child on the importance and severity on making nuisance calls to 999,” she said.