What is the Law and Penalties for Improperly Using an Emergency Call Service?

By Sahar Adatia and Jimmy Singh.

 

Let’s face it – there are some misfortunes in life that, although palpably trivial, just outright suck and can make us momentarily feel furious at the injustice of it all, almost like it’s the end of the world.

Your UberEats delivery arrives 40 minutes late. And it’s stone cold.

You’re out drunk but can’t work out where the best place to get a meat pie at 4am might be.

The babysitter cancels at the last minute.

A couple of loud cats decide to engage in excessive meowing right outside your window preventing you from sleeping the whole night.

Infuriating at best, it’s only natural that we seek out a quick solution to the issue at hand.

However, let us advise you that calling Triple Zero and advising of said emergency situation is definitely not one of them.

It so turns out that Australians are having a hard time working out when exactly is considered suitable to call in the big guns in blue to resolve a situation.

Last week, the Canberra Times reported that police in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) had been forced to issue a caution on Twitter reminding the public at large what sort of events constitute an “emergency situation”, and equally, that law enforcement are not your go-to guys when it comes to frivolous tasks.

The warning came against a spike in flippant phone calls made to Canberra police requesting assistance for circumstance such as having run out of credit and fast food being delivered cold.

Police warned that stupid Triple Zero calls risk diverting officers away from genuine emergencies, which could ultimately have “dire consequences”.

In fact, about one in five callers are nuisance cases tying up valuable phone lines.

The message is clear: Unless it’s a real emergency, don’t call the emergency hotline.

 

Next-Level Frivolity: The Stupid Reasons for Calls for Help Revealed

In recent months, Canberra residents have taken so-called “crisis” states of affairs to the next level, with ACT police receiving some downright ridiculous calls, including:

  • A request to babysit
  • A request for a ride home because the caller didn’t have money for a taxi
  • A caller asking for help moving belongings from Sydney to Canberra
  • A complaint that fast food was cold
  • A complaint that a window awning was broken.

In fact, according to an ACT Policing spokesman, 70 percent of Triple Zero calls don’t even require the police to respond immediately. Some are evidently nuisance calls while others are simply thoughtless.

“These calls reduce ACT Policing’s capacity to respond to genuine emergency incidents in a timely manner,” the police spokesman said.

“The calls also occupy emergency service lines unnecessarily and have the potential to delay a genuine call for emergency assistance being answered. This can obviously have dire consequences.”

 

Canberra Police Also Warn About Hoax Callers

Along with the message on misusing the emergency hotline, officers also made a warning about hoax callers, considered as senseless wastes of police time.

“Nuisance or hoax phone calls may also lead to emergency responses being activated, such as urgent duty driving, creating an unnecessary risk for police, emergency services members and the general public,” the spokesman said.

In the past, people have also been charged for such kinds of malicious calls.

The overall message of the ACT Policing is to dial Triple Zero for emergencies only.

As they advise on their website, for non-emergencies including reporting a crime or a non-life-threatening incident, there are better ways for members of the public to get in touch with the police, including contacting the ACT Policing assistance line on 131 444.

If people have information about illegal activity or suspect offenders, they can also contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000, or via the website at www.act.crimestoppers.com.au.

 

So, is it an Offence to Misuse Emergency Services?

Believe it or not, it is indeed an offence to repeatedly misuse emergency services.

Notably, in 2017, a Northern Territory man was arrested and eventually charged with making 1,862 nuisance phone calls to police stations across the country.

According to Australian Federal Police, the investigation began following a referral from Queensland Police regarding the 33-year-old making numerous nuisance calls to a number of state Triple Zero call centres dating back to 2014.

The nuisance calls were recorded in Queensland, NSW, South Australia and Western Australia.

Moreover, in all cases the nuisance calls diverted emergency call centre resources away from legitimate emergency calls.

Following analysis of the calls and with the assistance of industry technical specialists, the man was charged with multiple counts of misuse of an emergency call service.

What are the Penalties for Improperly Using an Emergency Call Service?

In circumstances where a person calls “000” with the intention of inducing a false belief that an emergency exists – also referred to as a ‘hoax call’ – the person may be charged with a criminal offence.

Anyone guilty of the improper use of an emergency call service will face a maximum penalty of up to 3-years imprisonment under section 474.18(1) Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth).

In order to be found guilty of this offence, the prosecution must first prove beyond reasonable doubt:

  1. That you made a call to an emergency service number, such as triple zero; and
  2. You did this with the intention of inducing a false belief that an emergency exists.

It is also a criminal offence carrying a maximum penalty of up to 3-years imprisonment for calling an emergency service number for a purpose other than to report an emergency where the call is a vexatious one under section 474.18(2) Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth).

How can the court determine if the call was vexatious? In determining whether or not the call is considered vexatious, the court will consider the content of the call, any calls previously made to emergency service numbers for a purpose other than to report an  emergency and any other relevant factors considered appropriate.

Where an offence of this kind is dealt with in the Local Court, the maximum penalty a Magistrate may impose is 12-months imprisonment and/or $12,600 fine.

Where the offence is dealt with in the District Court, the court can impose a maximum penalty of not only 3-years imprisonment, but in addition to this, impose a fine of up to $37,800.

Defences to this offence includes, mental impairment defences, and duress or necessity.

 

About that Fast Food that Arrived Late and Cold…

So, the moral of the story… If you find yourself faced with one of life’s minor misfortunes, who you gon’ call?

Definitely not the police.

(And definitely not Ghost Busters.)

Perhaps just deal with it like an adult instead. After all, it’s not the end of the world.

Our criminal defence lawyers are available in Sydney, Penrith, Parramatta and various other locations in NSW. We provide a free first consultation with fixed fees for most cases.

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