When there is an emergency that requires immediate professional attention and care, the number to dial is 911. Emergencies include reporting a fire, or a car accident. Basically anything where fire, police, or medical attention is needed in order to save a life, reduce damaged property, catch a criminal, or rescue someone.
Emergencies do not include a restaurant running out of the barbecue sauce you wanted, really disliking your neighbor because they play loud music all the time, or not knowing how to unclog your toilet. There are certain times when calling 911 is and is not warranted for an incident.
In every state, including California, it is illegal to dial 911 if it is not an emergency. A person who abuses the hotline can be charged with an infraction and fined. They can even put into jail.
To provide some perspective, a person can be fined up to $1,000 and put into jail for up to 6 months if they repeatedly call 911 with the intent to annoy or harass another person, such as a neighbor they strongly dislike. For other instances where 911 is dialed for non-emergency related incidences, the person can be fined as much as $200 per dial.
Misusing 911 ties up the call center’s hotlines. This means that people who are calling for a true emergency must wait even longer to get the assistance they need immediately. Additionally, the more times a single individual dials 911, the longer others have to wait. That amounts to crucial seconds and minutes lost for those who really need emergency services.
You need to use your best judgement to know when to dial 911. If you are unsure, it is best to call 911 anyway, just in case. Before dispatching the police, an ambulance, or the fire department, they will ask you a few questions in regards to the situation to help them assess and evaluate the need for assistance. Then, they will quickly dispatch emergency services. Other times, the matter can be resolved right then and there with them guiding you over the phone or explaining, for the future, what would or would not be an emergency call. They are careful when explaining this since they do not want to discourage people from ever calling 911 again.