'Pocket dialing' has consequences for 911 dispatchers, police
Tom Smart, Deseret News
WEST VALLEY CITY — It's an embarrassing scenario that plays out daily across Utah.
A person sits down, and the cellphone in their pocket dials a friend or family member. The inadvertent caller goes about their business, unaware that the friend on the other end of the line can hear what they're doing.
Now imagine that instead of a friend, you "pocket dial" or "butt dial" 911.
That happened 67 times Friday at the Valley Emergency Communications Center — all before noon. And emergency dispatchers say that's average for any given day.
But until VECC or another 911 call center can verify that there is no actual emergency, or until they've exhausted all resources to find that person, they have to commit time and resources to each call.
Even if someone, for example, calls from a cellphone at a school to report a fire and the dispatcher can hear the sound of a teenager giggling in the background, the call has to be verified as not being an actual emergency.
"You don't want to let that one slip through that is something (important), so you just can't ignore them. But it's frustrating when there are a lot of phone lines ringing and you have to deal with that 911 hangup that does turn out to be a 2-year-old or a pocket dial," said VECC spokeswoman Geana Randall.
VECC provides 911 service to 20 agencies, including most police and fire departments in Salt Lake County.
From Sept. 1, 2011, to Oct. 1, 2012, VECC received 301,730 calls to 911. More than 245,000 — or more than 80 percent of those calls — were made from cellphones.
Of those cellphone calls, 116,243 came in as a "911 hangup," meaning a dispatcher did not immediately talk to the person making the call. From that number:
95,752 were calls that either an officer responded to that turned out to be a false alarm or the caller had a phone that dispatchers could not pinpoint a location;
19,270 were 911 hangups that the dispatcher was able to call the person back and verify a false alarm;
430 were calls made on deactivated cellphones that dispatchers could not call back or trace. Old cellphones that are deactivated still have the ability to call 911, but they cannot receive calls.
It's not just pocket dialing that causes problems for dispatchers, it's young children who are playing on their parents' phone and accidentally dial 911.
"It's really frustrating, because (emergency dispatchers) want to help people. They are not angry about it. It's just that frustration of trying to get one more thing done when that next call could be a child choking, it could be someone in full arrest, it could be something that you really need to help that person with right now," said Randall.
In one of the 911 hangup calls received by VECC on Friday morning, a 2-year-old was playing with their parents' cellphone.
In another call, a man can be heard walking about and talking to a friend, unaware that emergency dispatchers are listening to their conversation. The conversation is calm and collected and there is no apparent sign of an emergency.
The number of 911 hangup calls caused by a child playing with a cellphone is about the same as the number of 911 calls received from accidental pocket dialing. "It's pretty evenly split," Randall said.
Some cellphones dial 911 simply when the number "9" is pressed, which can increase pocket dials, Randall said. Recently, the Federal Communications Commission issued a list of reminders for cellphone users because of the growing problem of butt dialing nationally.
To reduce these types of problems, both Randall and the FCC said cellphone users can take simple steps such as locking their keypads or turning off the 911 auto-dial feature on their cellphones.
"People need to familiarize themselves with their phone," she said.
People also need to realize that even if a cellphone is disconnected from a service provider, it can still connect to 911. Because of that, Randall advises parents not to allow children to use old cellphones as toys unless the battery is removed.
A "911 hangup" call also occurs when someone dials 911 and lets the phone ring, but hangs up before the dispatcher picks up. Even though the caller didn't actually talk to anyone, the dispatcher still has record of that person and has to call back to verify whether everything is OK.
The worst scenario, Randall said, is when a caller becomes "impatient" and dials 911, hangs up, and dials 911 again. At that point, two or three dispatchers could become tied up trying to talk to the same person.
"Those create additional work for us," she said.
Similarly, if there is a public incident — like a big accident on the freeway — several people may all call 911 at the same time. Sometimes a person will hang up after letting it ring two or three times, believing that someone else has already called. Once a person calls 911, they should commit to stay on the line until a dispatcher talks to them, Randall advised.
"If you accidentally dial 911, stay on the line. 'Hey sorry, just put my phone away.' We've all done pocket dials, not necessarily to 911. Stay on the line so we can try and verify that and we don't have to track you down," she said.
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