Grand Strand

Misuse of 911 hurts Horry County dispatchers, first responders

CONWAY, SC (WBTW) - Every single day, Horry County says people call 911 without having an emergency and all of those calls can put people with actual emergencies at a greater risk.

They're the first people you might hear when calling for help in an emergency: 911 dispatchers, but not every call they take is exactly life or death.

"Yes, we've got the call where (they ask) what temperature do I cook my turkey at Thanksgiving or that McDonald's got my order wrong," said Renee Hardwick, who's the county's E-911 director. "We do get a lot of prank calls sometimes, especially kids after school."

Sometimes, it's a mistake.

"We get a lot of missed calls from elevators and pool phones, which are set up to call directly into 911," Hardwick said.

Other calls are a Myrtle Beach area issue: tourists who may have an emergency back home and the 911 center here helps them find who to call.

"They're going to get 911 in Horry County because that's where they're physically located, not in their hometown," said Hardwick.

911 can also be misused as an information line, not a lifeline. This was especially true during the floods after Hurricane Florence.

Some people would call 911 to find out about road closures, even though the county set up a phone bank to inform about traffic conditions.

"People want information and we need to give them information," said Hardwick. "It's just not 911 that needs to do that."

Here are the top ten reasons Horry County says 911 is misused (in no particular order):

  1. Caller doesn't know which number to dial for a non-emergency
  2. Caller thinks 911 is 411
  3. Pocket dials
  4. Directions or roadside assistance
  5. Traffic information
  6. Calls from elevator or pool phones
  7. Prank calls
  8. Old cell phones without service (non-initialized phones)
  9. Visitors calling for an emergency happening outside Horry County
  10. Misdials from phone system that requires dialing 9 for an outside line

Those calls add up. Horry County received more than 255,000 911 calls in 2017. Dispatch also received 245,962 calls in 2017 from its non-emergency, ten-digit number, which is 843-248-1520.

Hardwick says it's unclear how many of those are not emergencies, but she says they're coming in too often for the 55 dispatchers, 10 to 12 of whom work each shift.

"It could be keeping us from someone who has a real emergency because we have limited resources," she said.

The Horry County Police Department is trying to prevent officers from getting tied up in non-emergencies. HCPD hired Meliah Littlejohn in November as its first false alarm clerk.

Littlejohn checks up on home and business security systems to find out why they're activated.

"In 2018, it said that we had 13,000-plus alarm calls, of which 43 were actually legitimate calls," Littlejohn said.

HCPD says 34 people were charged with "use of 911 numbers unlawfully" in 2018.

Hardwick says all the county's 911 center can do is tell people where they should be calling instead of 911.

Horry County's E-911 Facebook page tries to do just that, posting interactive polls and videos to teach people about the right number to call in specific situations.

"We're not ever going to make it go away completely, but the better we educate folks, the better things are," Hardwick said.

Hardwick also says you should stay on the phone if you do accidentally call 911 because if you hang up, dispatchers will spend more time trying to call you back.


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