When help is needed | Inquirer Opinion

When help is needed

/ 12:34 AM August 04, 2016

It’s one good idea that had been long overdue: an emergency hotline that gives the public a quick way to call for help when needed, with the government’s assurance that the call will be heeded posthaste. Rolled out last Monday as a partnership between the Philippine National Police, some government agencies, and the top two telcos in the country, the 911 emergency number replaces the existing Patrol 117 hotline.

Just as laudable is the companion initiative: the 8888 number of the Civil Service Commission, which allows the public to communicate complaints on erring government personnel, red tape, slow or sloppy service, or corruption.


The exasperating—though hardly unexpected—thing is that a curious public just had to check out these new “toys,” emergency or none. The result?  Seven hours after activation, the 911 hotline logged 2,475 phone calls, according to the PNP. Unfortunately, only 3 percent of that number (or 75) were legitimate calls. Forty-five percent (1,119) were dropped calls and 12 percent (304) were classified as prank calls. The rest of the calls were still being validated as of press time.

Similarly, the complaints hotline received a lot of calls, with a few prank calls keeping its 15 call center agents busy on its 30 lines. As of 5:30 p.m. on Monday, it had received 277 calls, or an average of 28 calls an hour during the day.


While most people would dismiss the prank calls as harmless juvenile fun, Interior Secretary Ismael Sueno deplored them as unnecessarily endangering those truly in need of emergency assistance. Quite right. With prank calls clogging phone lines, calls for help are needlessly waylaid and lives put at risk, as engaged phone lines also delay the response of police and fire officials.

The serious consequences of such reckless disregard for the needs of others has prompted PNP Director General Ronald dela Rosa to threaten prank callers with arrest.

Indeed, tracing these callers and penalizing them with a hefty fine, arrest for repeat offenses, and many hours of community service (like staffing the phone lines themselves for a number of days) should be part of the long-term plan to make the hotlines more effective, efficient and truly responsive.

As with most new initiatives, the emergency hotlines still have a few kinks that need ironing out, including the P5-per-call fee being charged by the telcos. While paying for the call is also the norm in the US model of 911 calls and, it has been argued, could make pranksters think twice before raising a false alarm, this fee might serve to discourage as well third-party callers or the plain indigent from reporting emergencies or crime situations that they’ve witnessed.

Another urgent need now that the hotlines are in operation and apparently being used profligately by certain people, is proper training for call center agents or hotline operators, who must know how to detect prank calls and quickly disengage from this type of callers to free the line.

They must also be trained to ask the right questions in order to solicit the correct information and ascertain the kind of assistance needed, and to employ the tone and language that could calm down agitated or fearful callers.

In the United States, 911 call takers are trained to ask questions in a predetermined order, using the answers given as a road map for the next specific query. As a result, they are able to relay enough correct information and instructions to first responders during the crucial first minutes of the emergency.


For now, the 911 hotline is being staffed by 45 PNP personnel, making it mainly a police hotline for crimes or police-related emergencies.

So far, Dela Rosa said, the operators’ job mostly entails coordinating with local police offices, which would then contact emergency responders in their areas if need be. “It will take some time to integrate the other emergency responses for fire, medical [situations] and disaster because we are still building the capabilities of local government units to be able to provide and sustain such services,” he said.

En route to that, schools can use the Sibika subject to make young children aware of how the hotlines can contribute to the community and how using them properly can save lives. As one government official said, “It is part of the civic responsibility of every Filipino to act responsibly and to help each other in every way they can.”

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