Growth of Indianapolis sparking awareness message about 911 call abuse

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- The Marion County 911 Center is the largest in Indiana and one of the largest in the United States in terms of call volume. The Marion County Sheriff’s Office is pushing an awareness message to make sure everyone knows to only call 911 if it’s a true emergency.

Every day, dispatchers at Marion County’s 911 center take thousands of calls, the majority of them true emergencies, but some aren’t.

“At times, we have people who call 911 several hundred times a day and hang up. We’ve had that happen here recently. And all those calls have to be answered and at the same time we have to call them back if they hang up,” said Major Michael Hubbs, with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.

Hubbs points to a situation on July 29. In a seven hour period, one person called 911 and hung up 219 times.

For another number, staff recorded 184 hang-ups since April of this year.

In one call provided to FOX59, the caller apologizes to the dispatcher and goes on to ask for directions. The call lasts roughly a minute, and the dispatcher helps the woman.

“I'm sorry to keep bugging you. I'm looking for directions,” the caller said.

Hubbs said that’s time that could be spent on more important matters.

“It really ties up valuable time in here for these dispatchers and compromises those folks who could be calling in here and have a true emergency,” he said.

The concern is magnified now, according to Hubbs, because of increased call volume. Marion County’s grown, and the dispatch center can hire more staff. But Hubbs said there’s no place to put them.

“Our capacity, our ability to take calls, as far as call taking positions has not increased in over 20 years,” he said, “If you do any type of analytical research you see the population of Marion County has increased several hundred thousand.”

Data shows the upward trend. In 2010, the center received 879,479 calls to 911. By 2014, data shows the center got 940,697 calls to 911. Up to July of 2015, the center received 537,511 calls to 911.

Those numbers include frequent callers, termed as frequent fliers.

“We know them by name. We know how often they call. We know the number they come from, and we just kind of join them in their own little world,” said Lisa Hennegar, a dispatcher of nearly ten years.

Placing a false 911 call is punishable by criminal charges, a class A misdemeanor under Indiana code, Hubbs said. He calls it tough to prosecute because it’s tough to prove.

“It's frustrating, when you look back and think maybe that extra thirty seconds to handle that previous call might've improved our service to that person needing help,” he said.

As the calls continue and the city grows, there are fears from those inside the 911 center that the dispatchers may not be enough.

“As the population continues to increase, government's going to have to take a hard look at our ability to increase calls,” Hubbs said.

So what do you do if you need to get dispatch or police, but it isn’t an emergency? The Marion County Sheriff’s Office recommends you call the non-emergency line at 317-327-3811. Dispatch still answers and receives those calls, but they do not tie up 911 lines.