July 06, 2001
Accidental 911 cell phone calls becomes critical problem
By Anjeanette Damon
Friday July 6th, 2001
The number of 911 calls accidentally dialed by cell phone owners is overwhelming the Reno police dispatch center, which officials said prevents people with real emergencies from getting help.
Dispatchers said they answer nearly 200 accidental 911 calls from cell phone users every day. Most of those calls are from people who unknowingly dial the emergency number by sitting on their phone or bumping it in their purse or pocket.
The cell-phone traffic is clogging dispatch lines in an office already struggling with staff shortages and increasing police and fire calls, Reno police Deputy Chief Jim Johns said.
“This is not a new problem, but it has reached critical proportions,” he said. “You never know whose life may be on the line. That is the real issue.”
To gauge the extent of the problem, dispatchers sifted through thousands of calls during a 15-day period in February. They counted 3,000 accidental cell phone calls. Based on the statistic, Johns estimates the center answers 70,000 accidental cell phone calls a year.
Brad Davenport, a Reno plumber, estimates he has accidentally called 911 at least six times in the two years he has carried his work phone.
“When I see it, I try and click it off real fast before they can answer,” he said. “But once it had actually gone through, and I had to speak to them. It’s definitely a problem.”
Davenport said he tries to clip his phone to a hook while driving to prevent mis-dials. For a longer-term solution, he suggested cell phone service providers design a phone that would prevent such accidents.
National problem, local crisis
The problem with accidental cell phone calls has affected dispatch centers nationwide, said Sonya Carius, communication manager for the National Emergency Number Association.
“The danger is that with the 911 lines tied up with accidental calls, people having a true emergency might not be able to get through,” Carius said. “It takes up a lot of a call-taker’s time.”
Of all the 911 calls made annually to the Reno dispatch center, an estimated 65 percent come from cell phones and 98 percent of those are accidentally dialed, Johns said.
The deluge of accidental calls is compounded by a shortage of dispatchers. The Reno center, which handles calls for 15 agencies, has nine empty positions out of 53.
The center also is the region’s designated public safety answering point and receives cell phone calls from across northern Nevada. Dispatchers will then transfer the caller to the appropriate agency.
The problem will only become worse with new federal standards that require cell phone manufacturers to design technology that would allow dispatchers to identify the incoming cell phone number and the location of the caller.
Dispatchers would then be required to return each accidental call in an effort to determine whether the caller needs help.
“It has the potential of crippling our communications center,” Johns said. “I don’t know what I would do. I don’t know where I would get the personnel to call each of these back and say, ‘Are you in trouble?’”
When an incoming call comes, a dispatcher cannot simply hang up if someone on the other end doesn’t immediately respond. Instead, the dispatcher listens for signs of an emergency, such as screaming in the background.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, they are listening to somebody’s car radio or a conversation they are having with someone else,” Johns said.
Solutions: education, better phones
Carius said the key to solving the problem is public education.
“We need to let people know that it does occur and educate them about how to handle a cellular phone so they avoid making those accidental calls,” Carius said. “It is an awareness thing. Locking your keypad is one of the ways to prohibit accidentally calling 911.”
In Reno, police designed several public service announcements to air on local television stations to advise people of the situation and to show them how to lock their keypads.
But Johns doesn’t think a few public service announcements are going to cut it.
“The solution is multipronged,” he said. “It is an education issue, an engineering issue and it may become an enforcement issue.”
The department also is working to educate cell phone vendors about the problem, asking them to show customers how to lock their keypads.
Police also are talking to Nevada’s congressmen about lobbying the cell phone industry to improve phone designs to cut down on accidental calls.
If the erroneous calls continue to be a problem, Johns said the department will explore ways of levying a fine against repeat offenders. The city recently began charging business and homeowners for repeat false alarms.
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