November 11, 2009 2:07PM

Problems with 911

Michael Crowley, senior editor at The New Republic, recounts some nightmare episodes with the 911 Emergency Response System in the current issue of Reader's Digest.  Here's an excerpt:

If there's one thing we think we can count on, it's that a frantic call to 911 will bring a swift and effective response.  Government's first priority, after all, is protecting its citizens.  But a spate of recent cases reveal shocking flaws in our national emergency response system--at a cost measured in lives.

One of those cases involved a young college student at the University of Wisconsin.  She dialed 911 and then hung up without saying anything.  Before the line was disconnected, however, there were screams and sounds of a struggle caught on tape.  The operator claims she could hear no noise--so she did not dispatch the police or try to call back.  Later that day, the college student, Brittany Zimmerman, was found beaten to death in her apartment.  An audio recording of some of the 911 nightmares can be found here.

Michael Crowley stresses the need for better trained operators and perhaps penalties for the people who tie up the lines with frivolous calls.  That's all well and good, but more importantly, we must all acknowledge the limits of the 911 system and take responsibility for our own safety.  As the libertarian sheriff, Bill Masters, points out "If you rely on the government for protection, you are going to be at least disappointed and at worst injured or killed."

For related Cato work, go here.

Update: New Jersey State Police are reviewing how a recent 911 call was handled. A Catholic priest called 911 as he came under criminal attack in his church.