Mississauga to push province to punish those who misuse 9-1-1

 

Many people have been calling for harsher repercussions for those who call the 9-1-1 emergency line to complain about everything from Amber Alerts to missed trains to incorrect restaurant orders—and now the City of Mississauga has passed a motion to formally call on the province to punish those who make "frivolous or vexatious 9-1-1 calls." 

"There have been concerns about calls to Peel Regional Police after Amber Alerts," Mayor Bonnie Crombie said during a Jan. 15 General Committee meeting. 

"They take time away from serious matters and emergencies," she said, adding that people have called 9-1-1 to ask for "emergency rides" to train stations and to complain about restaurant employees getting their orders wrong.

Crombie also referred to the tragic case of Riya Rajkumar, an 11-year-old girl who was murdered by her now-deceased father in Brampton in early 2019. When police released an Amber Alert in response to Rajkumar's Feb. 14 disappearance, many Ontarians took to social media to voice displeasure at the alert for waking them up in the middle of the night. 

Many also took to calling 9-1-1, not with information on the child's location, but instead to complain about the alerts. According to a city report, Peel's 9-1-1 call centre received 208 calls following Rajkumar's abduction—43 per cent of which were deemed to be a misuse of the system. 

Rajkumar's Amber Alert wasn't the only one to prompt dozens of vexatious calls to emergency services. 

A city report entitled "Penalties for Frivolous or Vexatious 911 calls: Legislative Review" notes that in Ontario, the introduction of Amber Alerts to mobile devices in 2018 has resulted in the increased misuse of 9-1-1 by members of the public calling to complain about the alerts.

Back in October 2019, Crombie introduced a motion directing council to call on the Solicitor General of Ontario to enact legislation making it an offence to call 9-1-1 for the purpose of complaining about Amber Alerts. The motion was deferred, but a similar one passed at the recent meeting. 

The city has argued that Ontario can look at best practices in other provinces. 

According to the city's report, Alberta, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, PEI, and Saskatchewan have enacted legislation that penalizes individuals who make "false, frivolous, or vexatious" calls to 9-1-1. 

Ontario does not have similar legislation in place.

The report says that fines for false, frivolous, or vexatious 9-1-1 calls range from $100 to $5,000 for a first offence and $10,000 for subsequent offences.

Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Nova Scotia have included a term of imprisonment for up to six months or one year as a general penalty for making such 9-1-1 calls.

The report says that 9-1-1 misuse has also angered Ontario residents, even prompting one Toronto resident to create an online petition urging the government of Ontario to punish such individuals. 

The petition has gained over 110,000 signatures since it was created in July 2019.

At the meeting, council members also mentioned that Peel Regional Police Chief Nishan (Nish) Duraiappah and Mississauga Fire Chief Tim Beckett have sent letters in support of the motion.

But while most councillors were on board with the motion, others expressed concern that potential legislation might deter people in emergency situations from calling 9-1-1—especially new Canadians who might not fully understand when and where penalties will apply. 

"We have a high immigrant population in the GTA and Ontario," Councillor John Kovac said at the meeting. 

"Looking at the comparison, other places [with legislation] are much more homogenous." 

Kovac, who asked how many other municipalities support such legislation, emphasized the need for a comprehensive education campaign. 

"It's more from an education standpoint where we can do a great job. I'd hate for someone to be afraid to call 9-1-1 because they're not sure, and how harsh the penalty can be. You'd hope to educate rather than come down hard with a hammer and hit people." 

Crombie said that while it will be great for Mississauga to start the ball rolling on what is an issue of provincial jurisdiction, the legislation will have to carefully define what qualifies as a "frivolous or vexatious" call. 

"I think it takes a leadership role on our behalf to get the province thinking of this. We have the support of our chiefs. We need an education campaign on when it's right to call 9-1-1," she said.

"We'd have to define frivolous and vexatious. Our premier should know that this is a priority for us. We're appalled by the number of calls that came in after the Amber Alert. We should undertake education campaigns so people know when to just call a non-emergency line instead of 9-1-1." 

The city report notes that what constitutes a "frivolous" or "vexatious" call is not defined within any of the legislation in other jurisdictions, but that the courts have generally interpreted frivolous to mean lacking legal merit, and vexatious to mean acting for an improper purpose. 

According to the report, the government of Alberta noted on the webpage for its 9-1-1 program that, in the application of its Emergency 911 Act, accidental calls or calls made in good faith to 9-1-1 would not be considered frivolous or vexatious.

Ward 1 Councillor Stephen Dasko agreed that education will be a key component of solving the problem and that the province should help first responders with funding for possible campaigns. 

"I think our hearts are in the right place and we need the province to lead the charge on this. One thing that's helpful along this path, certainly because our first responders end up getting the brunt of this, is that it might be worth putting forward an ask for funding from the province to help with a PR campaign that the police and fire departments can put out," he said, adding that the materials can be published in various languages. 

Whether the province will enact legislation remains to be seen.

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