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Emergency or Not? Dealing with Borderline Cases in Emergency Police Calls

Kent, Alexandra; Kevoe-Feldman, Heidi


Heidi Kevoe-Feldman


We examine occasions when callers phone emergency services yet preface their reason for calling as ‘not an emergency’. Data are phone calls to US (911) and UK (999) emergency lines and UK (101) non-emergency police lines. Data has been transcribed using Jefferson conventions and analysed using conversation analysis. The ‘not an emergency’ formulation is recurrently used to mark a shaky or borderline fit between the caller’s situation and the emergency category presumed by the dedicated phoneline. Typically, ‘not an emergency’ formulations prefaced descriptions of a possible emergency in which the caller balances the justification for the call on the boundary of what counts as an emergency. Recurrent concerns for callers using “not an emergency” are to manage pre-emptive calls about impending potential emergency, and to disclaim responsibility for the decision to call an emergency service. Call takers offer callers latitude to present a complicated description of their circumstances instead of swiftly sanctioning them for an inappropriate call. Our paper contributes to work on how the boundaries between categories are constructed and negotiated in interaction. Data are in British and American English.


Kent, A., & Kevoe-Feldman, H. (2024). Emergency or Not? Dealing with Borderline Cases in Emergency Police Calls. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 57(2), 151-168.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Dec 11, 2023
Online Publication Date May 2, 2024
Publication Date May 2, 2024
Deposit Date Dec 13, 2023
Publicly Available Date Nov 3, 2025
Journal Research on Language and Social Interaction
Print ISSN 0835-1813
Electronic ISSN 1532-7973
Publisher Routledge
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 57
Issue 2
Pages 151-168
Keywords Categorisation, conversation analysis, emergency calls, police, entitlement, institutional interaction
Public URL