01/30/2014 10:49 am ET Updated Apr 01, 2014

Please Don't Call 911 for Potholes

Macomb County Executive, Mark Hackel, is making headlines for advising residents of his county to dial 911 to report potholes and get quick results. According to a WXYZ report, Hackel is guaranteeing that if residents in his county report a hazardous pothole, it will be assessed and addressed by the Macomb County Department of Roads in an hour or less.

I admire Hackel and his team for wanting to take swift action on an issue that causes incredible frustration for the community they serve. Michigan roads are notoriously horrific, and after this brutal winter, it's no surprise that most think they are in worse condition than ever. That said, dial 911? Really?

For years emergency operators and responders all over the country have been warning the public that misuse of the 911 System has led to slower response times for bona fide emergencies. Yet, calls continue to come in from the ridiculous, like complaining about a pizza delivery, to the sublime, where a woman called 911 because her drug dealer charged her too much.

It can be argued that the biggest challenge regarding 911 is no longer educating people on the benefits of using it, but educating them on when NOT to use it. Even Hackel seemed to acknowledge an awareness of this problem during his WXYZ interview. He stated, "You don't call 911 if you want somebody to deliver a pizza, but if there's a problem on a roadway with a pothole, you definitely want to call somebody and 911 absolutely."

Isn't it giving the public too much credit when you start changing the rules about what does and does not qualify as an emergency? Hand-picking an issue like potholes, no matter how relevant a problem it is, sets a dangerous precedent. Consistency is key to regaining control of how the 911 System is used.

On its website, the National 911 Office clearly defines an emergency...

"An emergency is any situation that requires immediate assistance from the police, fire department or ambulance. Examples include:
  • A fire
  • A crime, especially if in progress
  • A car crash, especially if someone is injured
  • A medical emergency, such as someone who is unconscious, gasping for air or not breathing, experiencing an allergic reaction, having chest pain, having uncontrollable bleeding, or any other symptoms that require immediate medical attention"

A quick perusal of that list makes it painfully obvious that the presence of a pothole does not warrant a call, unless said pothole caused an accident where someone is injured or police assistance is required. Then by all means, please dial 911.

That's what makes Hackel's plan so unconscionable. There is no way to publicly redefine an emergency for just Macomb County. People all over the Metro Detroit area are likely to hear of the idea, and take action, regardless of whether or not the pothole they are reporting is actually in Macomb County.

The Macomb County Executive claims his team is ready and committed to successfully implementing this plan. Frankly, I doubt that. With no precedent, I don't think it's possible to accurately estimate the amount of response from the public. If you don't believe that, think back to the first few days of the launch.

Nonetheless, let's say they have put together a fair estimate, and their team is able to respond. What about the surrounding counties? Emergency response times are already notoriously slow in some communities and the last thing they need is the burden of more nuisance calls like pothole reports. It's unrealistic to think that calls will only come in from and about Macomb County.

I applaud Hackel for wanting to make a difference for his citizens, and especially for being willing to extend a guarantee on quick action, but using 911 to do it is irresponsible. If it's so difficult for people to go home or get to work and look up an appropriate county number to call, why not consider an alternative like 311? At least the entire concept of 311 was established for just such a purpose. That is, to divert non-urgent community concerns AWAY from 911.