ABU DHABI // Prank emergency calls by bored children or irresponsible adults are forcing police telephone operators in the emirate to miss hundreds of genuine calls every week, according to officials.
About a quarter of a million calls -more than 50 per cent of the 481,640 calls made to 999 in the past three months - were the result of "child play" or adults making unneeded calls.
"Even if it is just two per cent of the calls that go unanswered, you never know what type of emergency we were not able to respond to," said Col Ali al Dhaheri, the head of police operations department. "There were many cases that were referred to prosecution, but so far, none of these have involved children."
Although police have hired more staff to deal with the overflow, some calls simply did not get answered.
"There were also a lot of cases where we had to deploy many police forces to respond to a report, and then when they arrive they don't find anything," he said.
Police have promised that stricter measures would be taken against prank callers. Police must take every emergency call seriously, Col al Dhaheri said.
"We do discover some calls as pranks. But even if there is a very small percentage that it might be true we have to respond, we can't take any chances," he said.
Usually, if children continued to make prank calls, their parents were called in to sign off on a warning.
Legal consultant and lawyer Dr Khaled Mostafa said it was highly unlikely for a child younger than 16 to face a penalty harsher than being referred to his parents for moral guidance.
"The prosecution would depend on the extent of civil damage that was caused by the offence," he said.
For an offender to be prosecuted, criminal intent must be proven.
"In the case of a juvenile, it is unlikely to prove they have criminal intentions," he said. "Especially if it's a six- or seven-year-old; they don't have enough awareness of their actions."
Criminal law punishes "disturbance by phone" with a prison sentence of no more than a year or a fine of no more than Dh10,000. The penalty for making a fake report is a maximum of a Dh3,000 fine or a prison sentence of up to six months.
The law also mandates that juveniles face lighter punishments.
Nour Franji, a housewife from Palestine, and a mother of a four-year-old daughter, said her six-year-old neighbour once called 999 to complain that his toy sword had been taken by a friend but not returned.
"He asked his mother to bring him the sword from his friend, but she did not pay attention to him," said the 27-year-old mother of two. "So he called the police and told them, 'My friend took my sword; please bring it for me'."
The police eventually called back and spoke with the boy's mother.
"My daughter has never called 999 because she is still not aware it exists," she said, "I won't introduce her to it anyway to avoid such incidents. And she is always under adult supervision so she won't need to report an emergency herself."
Fahad al Jaberi, a patrol officer, said he had responded to countless false reports throughout his career.
"For example, we would receive a call reporting a big fight, and then when we reach [the scene] we don't find anything," he said. "Then we would question the caller and he would say there was something but it ended."
Wasted time and effort aren't the only problems, he said. Traffic safety was also an issue as police race to the scene.
"We put our on our sirens and cross red traffic lights, and then it turns out for nothing," he said. "Road users watching us will think we just did it for fun."
According to Mr al Jaberi, some fake reports had more serious motives.
"A person who wants to rob a house for instance, would report a fire or an accident somewhere to distract the police's attention as he commits his crime," Mr al Jaberi said. "But we know how to catch them - the trick does not work on us."
Nour Oneissi, a 15-year-old student from Lebanon, said her friend once called 999 because she was bored and home alone. She told police she was being stalked by a strange man.
"They kept calling her back, but she did not pick up," she added.
As officials agreed that the solution was to spread awareness to the importance of 999, police said they were undertaking several initiatives to educate the public.
"Our first step is campaigns, and then we will be spreading the message in schools, to parents and through mass gatherings such as Friday prayers," said Col al Dhaheri.