Pocket dials tie up 911 center

‘911, What’s is your emergency?’ is the first thing someone hears after dialing those familiar digits. The operator then walks the caller through the next steps to determine if law enforcement or medical care is needed. However, in Vermilion Parish, 911 operators are simply trying to determine if there is someone on the other line. The parish’s communication district is receiving an influx of pocket or phantom 911 calls.

“We’re assuming it’s because of an auto-dial feature on the phones and when they put the cell phone in their pocket, it’s calling 911,” said Gabe Mathiew, Executive Director of the 911 center.

Pocket dials are a normal part of the day, but since early April, operators began to take notice of the strange high volume of unintentional cell phone calls.

Mathiew explained, “Typically, on a daily basis they might get 10 hang up calls and now they are getting upwards of 40 or 50 sometimes even 100 in a day.”

Could the hundreds of calls be the work of a prankster? Mathiew explained the majority of the time a prank caller will engage in a conversation.

“However, these are people you can actually hear them having conversations. They don’t even know they have called 911.”

The pocket dials create a public safety issue. The two operators of the parish 911 center must treat every call like an emergency and follow steps to ensure the caller is safe. Each call could take one to two minutes and might ultimately involve law enforcement. The entire process could take up to two hours, if 100 fake calls are received in a day. That takes valuable time and resources away from actual emergencies.

The FCC and VP Communication District provided the following steps to prevent unintentional 911 calls.

Unintentional 911 calls placed from wireless phones clog the phone lines that deliver 911 calls to Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), which handle 911 calls, and put the PSAPs’ ability to respond to real emergencies at risk. Here’s how the problem occurs, and what you can do to avoid making an accidental 911 call.

Many older wireless phones are equipped with a feature designed to dial 911 automatically in an emergency. For example, when one key – typically the “9” – is held down for a few seconds, the phone automatically dials 911. The person using the phone may not even be aware of the feature or that it has been pre-activated by the manufacturer or retailer. Accidental dialing of 911 can occur even more frequently with open-face design phones that may bump against other objects in a purse, briefcase, or pocket. Newer wireless phones generally either do not have the capability to automatically dial 911, or require the user to activate the feature to make it work.

Accidental 911 calls cause problems for the public safety community, which must spend time and resources to determine whether a 911 call is real or accidental. A 911 operator must stay on the line to make this determination. If no one is on the line, the operator may need to disconnect the call and call the user back to determine whether the call is real or accidental. If no one answers, the operator may spend even more time trying to reach the caller, or even dispatch emergency services to help the caller. These efforts waste resources and divert scarce public safety personnel from other 911 calls reporting real emergencies.

Avoiding Accidental 911 Calls

You can help reduce accidental 911 calls by:

Locking keypads using the keypad lock feature. Keypad locks, some of which can be programmed to activate automatically, prevent a phone from responding to keystrokes until you unlock the keypad using a short combination of key presses.

Turning off the 911 auto-dial feature, if your phone has one. To determine whether your phone has this feature and how to turn it off, check your user manual or the manufacturer’s website, or call your service provider.

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