911 is no joke to comedian John Oliver

'Last Week Tonight' segment confronts the inability of 911 systems to find callers as easily as a pizza delivery app or an Uber driver


NEW YORK — Comedian John Oliver took aim at the technical challenges, misuses and abuses, and service breakdowns of 911 on his HBO show, "Last Week Tonight."

Oliver's cutting remarks and focus on the failure of 911 technology to locate callers as easily as a pizza delivery app or Uber driver can find a customer came on the eve of EMS Week 2016.

"We asked everyone from the FCC to public safety groups to industry trade groups about why it seems Uber can find you better than an ambulance and there doesn't seem to be a single satisfying answer," Oliver said.

The 15-minute segment featured a series of data points about 911 calls and humorous mishaps of children calling from the bathroom and intoxicated callers reporting hallucinations. Oliver also shared several near misses and fatal incidents when emergency crews were unable to locate callers.

In the United States 70 to 80 percent of the 240 million 911 calls placed each year come from cell phones. The location info provided by wireless carriers to nearly 6,000 dispatch centers varies widely. In addition to prank calls and confused children, dispatch centers now receive 84 million "butt-dial" calls each year.

Next Generation 911, a federal initiative started more than a decade ago set up to solve this very problem, has not been fully implemented in a single state. Regulatory oversight and funding are lacking in nearly every state.

Oliver implored viewers to search Google with keywords "understaffed 911 dispatch" with their town's name to understand the challenges facing 911 in every community.

For example, 911 callers in Memphis, Cincinnati and New Hanover County, N.C. are now greeted with an automated message that all operators are busy. An unnamed community plays a message telling callers, "If in danger go to safety."

Before closing the segment with a satirical public service announcement, Oliver challenged the audience about its misuse of and insincerity to improve the 911 system.

"This blasé attitude is indicative of the fact that until we are explicitly confronted with the challenges facing 911 it seems we are not going to do anything about them," Oliver said. "Maybe the problem is we are taught from a young age to take 911 for granted. Perhaps it's time for that to change." 

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