As little as a third of calls received by the Alarm Center (Häirekeskus) are genuine, due to a surge in non-malicious false alarms such as calls to 112 made by small children given functioning phones to play with, ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported Thursday.
The situation is exacerbated by the overall growing number of calls and consequent increased pressure on the center, AK said.
Almost 108,000 false alarm calls have been made to the alarm center in 2023, not yet halfway through the year, mostly from smartphones and watches which do not have the emergency number speed dial removed from their settings, AK reported.
At the same time, parents giving children phones to play with, even if these have no SIM card and are aging models, is also a major cause.
Janek Murakas, crisis manager at the alarm center, said: "Very often these older push-button type phones are given to children to play with. Since you can still call 112 without a SIM card, when children do play with them it is almost inevitable that an emergency call gets made without the parents even knowing it.
"In such cases, it would definitely be wiser if parents do given their children a phone with, to at least remove the battery out of the back, then no calls whatsoever can be made," Murakas went on.
At the other end of the age spectrum, the elderly, too, make false alarm calls to 112, unwittingly.
In one case, Murakas said, an old phone with no SIM was left with an elderly person who was in a care home. The phone ended up under the pillow, while its separate SOS button was pressed repeatedly.
"Within a few hours, this phone was able to make over 1,400 calls to us, which pretty much well clogged up our lines," Murakas said.
Since in neither case was there any intent, these incidents would not be punishable.
"In most cases, there is no malice behind these calls. It often stems from a lack of ability to handle devices," he added.
When an emergency call is incoming to the rescue center, operators are trained to ascertain the exact nature of the incident within one minute, even if the caller is unable to speak.
Helen Valdre, the rescue manager of the alarm center's North division, told AK that: "With every call we receive, we pre-suppose that there is a real need for emergency help. Next we have to clarify what that is. If the caller does not speak or cannot be heard, then we listen to background clues, observe the location, examine the number, until we are convinced without a doubt that there is no need for aid to be sent there.
"At the same time, this means that those with a real, dire need for help are kept waiting," Valdre went on.
No immediate solutions to the problem were presented, other than the very obvious remedy of not giving small children or the very elderly live phones to tinker around with.
Intentionally making a false alarm call to the emergency services is a criminal offense.
The emergency number in Estonia as in all Europe is 112. The state helpline is 1247. This offers information and advice 24 hours a day, in situations where life, health and property are not endangered. Operators speak English.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mari Peegel