Nearly one out of 10 calls made to the Dane County 911 Center aren't to report emergencies, recent call log data indicate, and it's wasting public safety resources.
On March 20, a date picked at random, 96 calls were misdials, disconnects, kids playing with phones, or people asking for directions or other questions. The center usually handles 1,100 to 1,300 calls on a typical day, although the call volume varies widely, said Paul Logan of the 911 center.
"With the number of cellphones out there and the number of hand-held devices out there, the problem continues to increase," Logan said. "I hope it doesn't grow much more."
The inadvertent 911 calls tie up resources inside the center and for emergency responders out on the streets, police said.
Wisconsin law allows police to ticket people for misusing 911 to make false reports. But neither Madison or Dane County have fines for calls that are simply inadvertent.
The Milwaukee suburb of Franklin does have those penalties in place, after Police Chief Rick Oliva got the city council to approve a new ordinance in December 2011.
"It takes longer to respond to legitimate calls for service when our officers are out addressing inadvertent calls," Oliva said.
At one time, nine out of 10 calls for service in the city were inadvertent, he said. Franklin has a slightly larger population than Sun Prairie.
The fines start at $50 for a person's fourth mistaken call, and they increase to $100 for the sixth call. Oliva said police have given out fewer than 25 fines for disobeying the new ordinance.
Dispatchers and police say a major problem comes when businesses require employees to dial "9," then "1" to make a long-distance call. Mistakenly dialing an extra "1" means the employee gets the 911 center.
At least one business in Franklin has changed its dial-out procedure in response to the ordinance, Oliva said.
"We do believe it's been effective," he said. "We have seen a reduction in the number of inadvertent calls."
Logan said similar fines won't happen soon in Dane County, but there are ways for people to cut down on the problem.
If a person is on hold with 911, don't hang up, Logan said. And, if a resident doesn't need police, fire or ambulance services, don't dial 911.
"People dial 911 to ask questions like, 'What time is the parade? What time are the fireworks? Can I park here?'" Logan said.