Reasons not to call 911? I can think of a few

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Shaming people for calling 911 isn’t the way to go. Piqsels

The RCMP’s list is doing more harm than good

Earlier this year, the Saskatchewan RCMP released their annual list of “worst emergency calls,” a shaming tactic intended to get people to be more mindful of how they use this emergency service. One caller wanted to report that their fiancé was not helping with their wedding planning, while another wanted to know if throwing a pickle at someone would get them arrested.

Given that many RCMP communication centres across Canada are understaffed – some by over 50 per cent, as per a 2018 report by CBC – it is understandable that the RCMP would like to have fewer people tying up their phone lines. However, the “reasons to not call 911” campaign, in its current format, is leaning into mockery while masking two serious issues – some issues that sound like “non-emergencies” may be very serious, and there should be more, better, and better-known alternatives to calling 911 when you need help.

One of the calls on this year’s ‘list stuck out to me because, depending on the context, it may not have been an entirely foolish call. Specifically, someone had called 911 asking them to pick up their medication because they could not get in contact with their pharmacy.

Now, I understand that this made it on the list because 911 is not, generally, a delivery service. However, I can easily envision a scenario where this was a reasonable call to make. If you are a person who can’t go without your medication, urgently needs a prescription refill, doesn’t have a local support network of family or friends who could pick it up for you, and can’t get in touch with your pharmacy – do you have many better options?

And even if this particular caller wasn’t in a truly urgent situation, presenting that reason for calling as unequivocally foolish and unnecessary means that a person who actually does need help accessing medication might think twice about asking for it until their situation gets much worse.

When I lived in a small town, I know I helped many friends refill their medications when they were too ill to make it to the pharmacy or otherwise could not go themselves. I do worry that “having a friend who likes long bike rides and is willing to go 30 minutes out of her way to pick up prescriptions” was the best solution here, because something so necessary as access to medication should not be dependent on having friends who live nearby – not everybody does.

Though the RCMP does recommend calling 311 instead of 911 for non-life-threatening emergencies, the fact remains that 911 is still a much better known place to call for help, and I would hope the RCMP would rather have too many false positives (people calling 911 who do not need urgent help) than false negatives (people not calling 911 who do need urgent help).

Mocking reasons that people call 911, especially for context-ambiguous calls, risks increasing the rate of people who need help not getting it.

The other issue masked by a list like this one is that there are many excellent reasons to not call 911 – for example, if you are afraid of having armed police getting involved. Particularly if you are a member of a visible minority or in a vulnerable situation, calling 911 can carry a risk to your own life and safety.

For example, a document obtained by The Globe and Mail last year showed that more than one-third of people shot to death by RCMP officers from 2007 to 2017 were Indigenous. A 2015 survey found that the majority of people in their sample who were experiencing intimate partner violence were afraid to call the police, because they were scared that they would not be believed or that their abuser would face only minor consequences, and the situation would only become worse for them in the end.

In cases like these, alternatives to calling 911 – like community-based programs and crisis lines – can allow people to get the help they need without the potential of sending armed authority figures into the situation.

One Indigenous-specific crisis support is the Inuit & First Nations Hope for Wellness Line (1-855-242- 3310, with service in Inuktitut, Cree, Ojibway, English and French), and here in Regina, people experiencing intimate partner violence or another crises can call the Mobile Crisis Helpline at 306-757- 0127.

There are many excellent reasons to not call 911. There are also plenty of less obvious reasons to call on emergency services for help. With the greatest sympathy to overworked dispatchers doing an incredibly challenging job, campaigns like this are not the way to go.

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