The idea for this column came flying at me from the roof of a ramshackle motor home: when to call 911.
I was driving behind it on Claus Road the other day when pieces of wood started peeling of the roof and soared through the air in my direction. I began slowing down to increase the distance between me and the motor home, which gave me the time to avoid hitting what came next: a milk crate that landed in the middle of my lane.
After swerving around the milk crate, I considered calling 911 to report the driver and let dispatchers know there was an obstacle in the road, but didn’t know if a milk crate in the road was a real emergency. I asked Siri for the Modesto Police Department’s non-emergency number, but she was no help.
So I continued on to work and hoped no one would hit it.
I’ve since learned that a road hazard, even one as small as a milk crate, is a perfectly legitimate reason to call 911.
California Highway Patrol dispatch supervisor Marion Armstrong said the milk crate could have caused another motorist to swerve into oncoming traffic or badly damaged a car.
A lot of people, it turns out, question when it’s appropriate to call 911. Modesto police spokeswoman Heather Graves said it’s one of the most common questions at Neighborhood Watch meetings.
Call 911 if:
▪ Someone is hurt – if they were injured in a car accident, have been shot or stabbed, or are suffering a medical emergency.
▪ Someone could be hurt – if there are downed trees or live power lines, a drunken driver or vicious dogs running loose.
Injury and loss of life are the No. 1 priority for dispatchers.
Loss of property is secondary and only worthy of a 911 call in certain circumstances, such as if you witness someone breaking into your neighbor’s home or car – basically any property crime in progress.
But if you wake up in the morning and find someone stole your car or spray-painted graffiti on your fence, you need to call the non-emergency number, said Oakdale police dispatch supervisor Cindy Burns.
Most of the time Oakdale only has one dispatcher who handles calls for Oakdale and Newman police. All calls, both 911 and non-emergency, go to this dispatcher, but he or she is alerted when it is a 911 call.
Calling 911 for something that isn’t an emergency ties up resources and might delay a response for someone who is really in need.
Some unfortunately common examples given by dispatchers include:
▪ People calling to say they were overcharged for food or products at a business.
▪ Parents calling to say their children are refusing to go to school.
▪ Parents in custody disputes. Mom calling to say Dad is an hour late dropping off their son.
▪ People calling to see if their phone works.
▪ People calling to ask for the non-emergency number.
To avoid that last one, I’ve included in this column the non-emergency numbers for every police agency in Stanislaus County.
Armstrong recommends people program into their cellphones the non-emergency numbers of their local law enforcement agencies so that it is readily available when you need it and aren’t able to look it up, such as if you are out driving.
If you call 911 on a cellphone, you might first be routed to the California Highway Patrol dispatch center in Merced.
Cities such as Turlock, Oakdale and Ceres have technology that allows cellphone calls to ping off of towers in town and send the call directly to a dispatcher there. Stanislaus Regional 911 is working toward that but most calls made in its coverage area – Modesto, the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department and its contract cities – will go to the CHP.
“For any 911 calls, the most important thing is for people to know where they are,” Armstrong said. “We have a mapping program that only gives us the general vicinity of cellphone calls.”
She said the caller should be prepared to give an exact address, the street and nearest cross street, or at the very least a landmark.
If you see a drunken or reckless driver, get the best information you can at a safe distance – the car’s make, model and color, and license plate if possible.
Finally, dispatchers want to remind people that an old cellphone that is out of service still can call 911.
That can be a useful backup in case of an emergency, but too many parents are handing them to their kids to play with.
“Our biggest problem is what we call pocket dials, when people ... put phones in pockets (and the emergency button is hit), or children playing with the phone,” Armstrong said. “A phone (for which) they no longer are paying for service still can call 911, but we can’t call the people back to confirm they are OK.”
Burns said a pocket dial on an in-service cellphone can be traced within a few meters with 90 percent accuracy, while an out-of-service phone is more like 1,900 meters at 50 percent accuracy.
The only thing an officer can do is patrol that general vicinity and look for anything amiss.
Burns said reverse traces also can be done to get the last billing address associated with the phone, a process that requires approval from the cellphone carrier and can take hours.
It might save the life of someone who dialed 911 but couldn’t speak to dispatchers, or it could be a waste of time and resources if a parent gave the phone to a toddler as a toy.
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Non-emergency numbers for Stanislaus County
Modesto police: 209-552-2470
Sheriff’s Department (including contract cities of Riverbank, Patterson, Waterford and Hughson): 209-552-2468
Oakdale and Newman police: 209-847-2231
Ceres police: 209-538-5712
Turlock police: 209-668-1200
California Highway Patrol (Stanislaus, Merced, Tuolumne, Madera and Mariposa counties): 209-356-2900