x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Nothing funny about prank calls

Prank calls to the Abu Dhabi police's 999 emergency hotline are too numerous, creating an annoyance at the least and opening to door to real tragedy in the worst-case scenario. Public education and some well-publicised convictions could greatly reduce this plague

A plague of prank calls to 999, the Abu Dhabi police emergency line, is not merely "a little fun". It is a recipe for tragedy.

As we reported yesterday, of the 5,350 daily calls to 999, more than half are false alarms - pranks, mistakes or other wastes of time.

At the very least, this is tremendously frustrating for operators and police who are forced to run fools' errands.

Now imagine the worst-case scenario: various bored and thoughtless people make plausible prank calls at about the same time. Police units fan out, rushing to cope with the incidents which appear the most pressing. Then a genuine emergency call arrives, a missing child perhaps. Operators and dispatchers - if not distracted by still more prank calls - search vainly for a police car close by to handle the crisis. The resulting delay in such a case could easily cost someone's life.

Nothing quite like that, to our knowledge, has happened yet. But there is anecdotal evidence that emergency responders' sense of urgency, and so their efficiency, can be eroded by incessant false alarms.

The solution comes in two parts. First, a vigorous public education campaign would help people understand when and how to make an emergency call - to summon police, an ambulance or firefighters - properly. Don't even touch the phone unless you truly need help. And if you do call, try your best to be calm, clear, complete and concise.

Second, existing laws should be enforced firmly. Phone calls are easily traceable nowadays.

The six-year-old who dialled 999 because his friend had taken his toy sword doesn't need more than a good parental talking-to, but not every case is so amusing. The torrent of 2,700 bogus calls a day shows that too many people who are old enough to know better are calling without reason.

Repeat offenders should face well-publicised prosecutions for creating a "disturbance by phone" or making a false report. These should lead, upon conviction, to substantial fines. The law provides for up to Dh10,000 in fines, and even prison time.

That would spread the message quickly and clearly, and help reduce this dangerous wasteful foolish practice.