The emergency 999 phone system is one of the most vital public services in Hong Kong. Whenever a flashing blue light or a klaxon sounds as police, a fire engine or an ambulance races through the streets to an accident, it is usually the result of a 999 call.
Lives can be saved through the speed of response of the relevant services, so it ought to be the most valued listing in the telephone directory. Instead, it appears to be one of the most misunderstood.
Of the three million 999 calls made each year, around 72 per cent are nuisance calls, and three per cent are malicious hoaxes.
Police statistics for last month alone show that of over 250,000 calls only 12 per cent were genuine emergencies. What is most striking about these statistics is the fact that the malicious hoaxes are so few. It is clear that people are misusing the 999 service simply because they do not have a grasp of what it is there for.
Even when no ill is intended, lives can still be put at risk. If an operator is tied up with a trivial inquiry, vital seconds may be lost for the person trying to report a genuine emergency. Malicious calls also impose a burden on the taxpayer. The fire service alone responds to around five false calls daily, using up manpower and facilities that could be needed elsewhere.
Today hoax calls can all be traced, thanks to a number display system installed last year. Offenders are often prosecuted, but what is needed to stop thoughtless abuse of the system is better education. A concerted television advertising campaign, and police talks in schools would help to cut down the number of nuisance calls that are now reaching crisis levels.