Animated illustration of fingers tapping out support numbers like 911 211 and 411

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When do you dial 911?

Whether you’re reporting a break-in or a noisy neighbour, here are the numbers you need to know

The GTA’s 911 operators aren’t always dealing with life-or-death emergencies—they field thousands of non-life-threatening calls that should never have been made in the first place. One particularly absurd request for police: “I paid for a car wash and I’m not getting the money back and I don’t know what I can do.”

Seriously.

Peel Regional Police report that more than 40 per cent of the 30,000 phone calls they receive every month aren’t emergencies. Getting locked out of the house, a dysfunctional laundry machine, figuring out a new cellphone—none of these scenarios require a police presence. In fact, 911 has become so ingrained as a hotline for help that police have had to remove it from the outside of their cars and replace it with the non-emergency number for their region, says Helen Chasty, a communications support supervisor for Peel Regional Police.

There are only three reasons you should be talking to a 911 operator. “Only call if your life, or someone else’s life, is in immediate danger, or if there is an urgent crime in progress,” says Chasty. “In the moment, anything can seem like an emergency, but take a second to think about the bigger scheme of things.”

So, whom do you call when a neighbour’s party is raging through the night or when you want to report a break-in that happened a few hours ago? Not 911. In Peel, the non-emergency number for police is: 905-453-3311; in Toronto, it’s 416-808-2222; and in York, it’s 1-866-876-5423.

But the police aren’t the only point of contact if you have a question or concern about something happening in the city. Here are five other numbers you should know (and FYI, they’re all free to call from your cell):

Animation of crying baby and barking dog with fingers dialing 211 and 311

211

Your go-to for a wide range of community, health, social and government services. If you’ve got questions about subsidized housing, childcare issues or disability services, this is the number to call. For more details about this United Way-supported service, and what it offers in your region, check out the website.

311

This is a number everyone should know because it covers non-emergency municipal issues (and offers assistance in 180 languages). Dial it to address the relentless barking dog next door, any loud party complaints, or by-law issues. It’s also handy if you have questions about community centres, tree removal or parking and garbage schedules. Unfortunately, not all areas nationwide have 311 yet and not all are open 24/7. “But if it’s a by-law issue, it can usually wait until the next day anyway,” Chasty says. In the meantime, check your region’s website to see if you can find a specific answer for Toronto, Brampton or Mississauga.

411

Can’t find a phone number via Google? Call this number for directory assistance. It’s especially helpful if you’re trying to track down a person or business and you’re out of options (an operator will look-up the number you need).

Animation of construction worker and customer service representative with fingers typing 511 and 611

511

If you’re wondering about road conditions or whether your street is going to be plowed (yup, that’s a common 911 call), dial 511. Run by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, this service will give you the scoop on any road closures, construction, weather conditions and other potential traffic snafus so you can plan your trip and be on your way. The service’s website can also help you plan your route before you set out.

611

Experiencing technical difficulties? Depending on your wireless service provider, this should be your direct line to the customer service for your cell phone.

What happens when you call 911 by accident?

If you butt-dialled 911, don’t hang up. Take 30 seconds to admit your mistake and make it clear there’s no actual issue. You could save a 911 operator a lot of wasted time and energy. “We have to follow up,” Chasty says. “It could just be kids playing in the background, but if we think there is something urgent going on, we have to try to find out if the person who called is okay.”

Contrary to popular belief, 911 operators can’t track a cellphone—they need to request your service provider to get your location. And because cellphones are much more common than landlines these days, it’s not as easy as finding a fixed home address.

“The main issue is that 911 call operators can only take one call at a time,” says Chasty. “There might be someone waiting in the queue who has a baby that’s not breathing, or they’ve injured themselves, or they’re having a violent domestic incident with their spouse. These people really need our help and can’t get through because we’re tracking down a phone number from someone who called accidentally.” There’s really no better reason not to dial the wrong number in the first place, but also to quickly fess up if you do—someone else’s life could depend on it.