Special Assignment: 911 At Your Service

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November 3, 2006

If you or a loved one is in danger, you want help as quickly as possible...but a quick response isn't easy when phone lines are tied up.

Local 911 centers say a majority of the calls coming in aren't real emergencies.

While non-emergency calls tie up the lines, people with real emergencies are waiting to get through.

The goal is to keep 911 calls to 60 seconds and respond minutes later. But that can be hard when three minute calls tie up the lines.

We sat in one center for about an hour, and only one call was urgent.

Several callers used 911 for directory assistance. One caller asked for the number to the DMV. Another asked for an attorney named Barber. And one caller called 911 because they kept getting sent to voice mail at the number they should have been calling.

Some of the calls could have been considered an emergency...when the incident actually happened. One caller called about records for an incident from the previous Friday.

Another caller wasted precious time on the line trying to decide if she should file an incident report. Finally she said she'd think about it...and call back.

All calls that come in, emergency or not, have to share just 12 lines.

The 911 center gets about 9000 calls every day. If you call with something that isn't a real emergency, you could tie up the phone lines and keep somebody with a real emergency from getting through.

Assistant 911 director Catherine White says for safety reasons, they respond to almost everything.

"We never take anything for granted, because a man might say 'my toe hurts'', and his foot might be gangrene by the time we get there," she told News 12. "We still respond regardless of the situation."

But sometimes, callers don't need emergency responders...they need directions.

Some have safety tips.

"They have two sets of glass doors to get out the front, and one set was locked with a key and you could not get out the door."

Some don't even know why they're calling.

But the lines need to stay clear. Sometimes the calls turn out to be domestic disputes between family members, but some distress calls are a matter of life and death.

In the one emergency case we witnessed, fire was only minutes away from spreading to Mary Booth's apartment. The time all those non-emergency calls take is time she didn't have.

All together, the non-emergency calls we heard took 20 minutes. That's a lot of time when we're dealing with life or death situations.

You will never get a busy signal when you call 911. If all twelve lines are tied up, the call will bounce to an administrative line. But it's better to dial directly in, because the operators can trace your address and can get help faster.

If you have something that isn't quite an emergency, here are some numbers you can call:

If you live in Richmond County, call 706-821-1080.

If you live in Columbia County, call 311.

If you live in Aiken County, call 803-648-6811.