Over the course of a year, the Estonian Alarm Center (Häirekeskus) answered 12,995 calls from the 20 most frequent callers. One individual spent a total 28.5 hours on the line during this period. The Estonian Ministry of the Interior has proposed introducing penalties for those who deliberately obstruct the Alarm Center's work.
"Alarm Center, what seems to be problem?"
After hearing these words, the person who has called the Alarm Center (Häirekeskus), should then provide details about the reason they are calling. However, sometimes no one says anything. On some days, this can happen over and over again, hundreds of times. And every single time the phone is answered, those same words are said again: "Alarm Center, what seems to be problem?"
Emergency center crisis manager Janek Murakas said, that no calls made to the emergency number 112 can be ignored.
"We still have to ask our main question and make sure that there really is no need for assistance," said Murakas.
By itself, each call like this takes as little as ten seconds. "However, if there are hundreds of such calls during the shift, then the total amount of time spent responding to them is quite a lot," Murakas added.
More and more calls are being made to the Alarm Center from unlocked phones in people's pockets, SOS buttons given to older people, or from smartwatches with fall detection sensors. However, every now and then, the Alarm Center is also hit by a type of deliberate attack that impedes its work.
According to Kadi Luht-Kallas of the Ministry of the Interior's rescue and safety oversight policy department, the same issue is also a major problem in Ukraine for example.
"There are devices, which are used maliciously, with the specific aim of paralyzing the work of institutions that provide internal security. There is a very clear need for a legal basis to identify the possible causes of this," Luht-Kallas said.
There are already laws in place against making hoax calls. Last year, 145 proceedings were initiated against people, who had made false calls to the Alarm Center, generally when under the influence of alcohol. During such calls, many also provided false information about crimes or health problems. However, there is currently no section in the law, which concerns situations where the emergency services have not been dispatched to respond to a call.
And if legal proceedings cannot be initiated, it is also not possible to discover who is behind the numbers bombarding the Alarm Center with calls.
"As soon as we start making any inquiries to mobile operators, they usually answer, that so long as there is no legal procedure, they have no reason to release any data. They still have to protect their customers," said Janek Murakas.
The Ministry of the Interior has made clear its intention to develop a draft law and proposed several possible items legislation for discussion, all of which are aimed at punishing those who knowingly interfere with the work of the Alarm Center.
Awareness and intentionality are important factors here. If it turns out that an elderly person's smartwatch is making more and more emergency calls, then perhaps all that is required is for the settings to be reviewed or aspects of its functions to be explained.
However, those deliberately wasting the Alarm Center's time could face punishments.
Janek Murakas gave one example of a caller who has already made around 900 calls to the Alarm Center this year.
"The person is known, he has been contacted by the local authorities. The police have tried to talk to him. However, the local authorities have also said that he can look after himself well and does not need direct social assistance. He just shouts and curses down the phone, and blames the Alarm Center for all the troubles in the world. We have exhausted our ways of trying to influence him, and maybe the only option in such cases is a form of punishment," Murakas said.
Over the course of a year, the alarm center answered a total of 12,995 calls from the 20 most frequent callers. On of these spent a total of 28.5 hours on the line during that time. Murakas emphasized, that there is no need to amend the law to punish all these so-called serial callers, adding that malicious callers are still in the minority.
"The majority of these serial callers need help, but not the kind that the Alarm Center can provide through its partners. They do not need the direct intervention of the emergency services, ambulance or police."
These people need social assistance, usually in the form of local government assistance. However, callers often explain that they have tried calling the designated municipality phone number but it is not answered at the weekend or in the evening.
"People say that they don't know where else to turn. We are still the only number that is available 24/7 and we are there for people all the time. There are also those people who point out that our number is free to call," said Murakas.
In such cases, the Alarm Center cooperates with municipalities, which can also be of assistance. Kadi Luht-Kallas said, that, with its proposed amendment to the law, the ministry does not want to tell anyone not to call if they are genuinely concerned about something and require assistance from the emergency services.
"It could make him think a little bit about the fact that if he's in a bad mood with the country, he shouldn't just call the emergency number to make a point. So that he understands that by doing this he is preventing someone else from getting help," Luht-Kallas said.
Editor: Michael Cole