Non-emergency 911 calls are tying up operators

One Birmingham 911 operator may handle as many as 40 calls in an hour.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBMA) 911 operators are there to help you during an emergency.

Most calls are serious. Others, not so much.

Some 911 calls from across the country are off the chart and just not what the system was intended for:

  • A Jacksonville, Fla., man called 911 because a restaurant left the special sauce off his sandwich.
  • A woman called 911 at 2:00 a.m. because her legs turned blue. Turns out she wore a new pair of jeans to the club that night.
  • And then there’s the mother who received a package from UPS and thought her kid might have an allergic reaction to packing peanuts.

Some people just don’t know what a true emergency is.

The Birmingham, Ala., 911 center is the busiest in the state. It receives 800,000 calls a year. That’s twice as many calls as any system in Alabama.

One Birmingham 911 operator may handle as many as 40 calls in an hour

One operator at Birmingham's 911 center may handle as many as 40 calls in an hour—calls from people like Michael Pope. He called for his wife, Kimberly, after he told her that her mother passed away.

“Just hyperventilating,” Kimberly Pope told ABC 33/40 News Investigates. “My heart was racing. Stuff like that. Like anxiety, basically. Just the shock of it all.”

John Strickland is a construction superintendent for Brasfield & Gorrie. He had to call 911 for an overheated diabetic construction worker who collapsed on the job.

“Maybe five minutes they were there,” Strickland said. “Ten minutes he was in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. It couldn’t have gone any better I don’t think.”

Alabama law doesn’t allow us to play you excerpts from 911 calls. But non-emergency 911 calls do take up valuable time and waste resources.

Birmingham 911’s non-emergency calls

Birmingham 911 has received calls for cats in trees, neighbors not mowing their lawns, and panicked drivers who didn’t know how to open their car door after the battery died.

Greg Silas is director of Birmingham 911.

“To them it’s a big deal,” Silas told ABC 33/40 News Investigates. “Unfortunately, those same calls, they take up the space that a call taker could be talking to someone who has an actual emergency.”

When to call 911

So, when should you call 911? What’s really an emergency?

According to, an emergency is any situation that requires immediate assistance from the police department, fire department or an ambulance.

  • You should call 911 for a crime that’s in progress or just happened.
  • Any suspicious activity like an unattended, unclaimed backpack in a public place, or someone snooping around your yard in the middle of the night.
  • A car accident—especially if someone is injured.
  • Or, any kind of medical emergency.

What should you do if you’re just not sure if the situation is a true emergency?

Experts recommend calling 911 and letting the operator determine whether you need emergency help.

It’s always best to err on the side of safety.

Birmingham also has a call center to handle routine, non-emergency requests for city services.

Call 311 for that.

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