News : Pocket-dialing 911 Burdens Busy System
San Diego County, CA, USA, Feb. 4, 2016 -- Pocket dials, or "butt dials," are inundating emergency call centers around the nation, including in San Diego County, where some agencies report as much as 30 percent of 911 calls are made inadvertently.
Between Sept. 12 and Oct. 16, about 22 percent of the 53,228 911 calls made in the city of San Diego were accidental, San Diego police Chief Shelley Zimmerman announced at a City Council committee meeting Wednesday. Most were made from cellphones.
Lt. Scott Wahl said the department decided to take a closer look at 911 calls as part of a "comprehensive analysis" to identify ways to make their dispatch center run more efficiently. He said he hopes the numbers encourage people to take an interest in avoiding pocket 911 calls.
"We're working really hard to fill (23 dispatcher) vacancies, but that’s not a quick and easy fix," he said, adding that it could take a year and a half to get a dispatcher trained and on the front lines. "We can have a (more) immediate impact if we educate people."
The county Sheriff’s Department has also discovered many 911 calls are made inadvertently. Using snapshots of 911 data, the department estimates bout 30 percent of all 911 calls are pocket dials.
The findings mirror a nationwide trend. Dispatch centers, especially ones in metropolitan areas, are being inundated by "butt dials."
A Google study on 911 calls in San Francisco last year concluded about 20 percent were inadvertent, that is, people dialing their phones by mistake, often while the devices are in their purses or pockets. While visiting call centers in New York City and Anchorage, Michael O’Reilly, commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, found about 50 percent of 911 calls made from cellphones were pocket dials.
"This is a huge waste of resources, raises the cost of providing 911 services, depletes (call center) morale, and increases the risk that legitimate 911 calls – and first responders – will be delayed," he said in a 2014 post on the topic.
On average, local 911 wait times aren’t long. In 2015, the average wait time when calling 911 in the city of San Diego was 13 seconds. In the sheriff’s jurisdiction, it was 15 seconds. But there are times, during natural disasters, for example, when pocket calls may force people with real emergencies to wait.
"The wind storm on Sunday was an example," said Capt. Dave Brown, who oversees the department's communications center. "The average wait time was 60 seconds that day. While we were getting hundreds of calls about downed power lines and trees, we were dealing with inadvertent 911 calls that slowed us down."
The captain said the sheriff’s department has seen a massive shift in the way people make 911 calls. In 2007, 20 percent emergency calls to the sheriff’s department came from cellphones. In 2015, about 78 percent of 911 calls were made from mobile phones.
That transition may be one reason why most pocket calls logged in San Diego and sheriff’s territory were from cellphones. It’s also easier to misdial on a cellphone, since many mobile phones come programmed with an emergency call button that connects directly to the nearest call center. That button works as long as a phone has battery, even if it’s not in service.
According to the Google study on San Francisco 911 calls, wireless cellphone calls take longer to sort out than landline calls — a minute and 14 seconds versus 43 seconds —and were listed by 39 percent of dispatchers as their biggest problem.
Sofia Menvielle, a sheriff’s dispatch floor supervisor with 14 years experience, said pocket dials can be stressful, especially when call centers are busy.
"A callback takes time, and while that’s happening, there are other 911 callers who might actually have an emergency," Menvielle said. "I could be helping those people, but instead I’m spending all this time leaving a message."
Brown said the sheriff’s department is looking into changing how it handles misdials.
Currently, when the department gets a pocket dial, dispatchers listen, try and determine if a crime or something nefarious is happening, and hang up if the call sounds accidental. They are then required to call the number back. If the callback isn’t answered, they leave a scripted message. It is is answered, they inform the person they just called 911, ask if they need assistance, and, if they have a moment, educate the caller about ways to avoid accidentally calling 911. If the person on the other end sounds suspicion, they’ll send a deputy to check on things.
"Spending an extra couple of minutes on each one of these — it didn’t save anyone’s life," Brown said. "I can’t think of a single time it’s benefited anybody."
Cellphone users were encouraged by both departments to educate themselves on ways to prevent pocket dials. Some methods include:
- Locking your cellphone’s home screen before slipping into your purse or pocket. If your phone has a setting that allows it to dial 911 even when the screen is locked, disable it.
- Avoiding letting small children play with cellphones. Even phones that aren’t in service can call 911.
- Purchasing a case that protects the front of your phone
- Downloading a cellphone application that prevents pocket dialing
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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About San Diego County:
San Diego County is a county located in the southwestern corner of the state of California. As of the 2010 census, the population was 3,095,313.
Published: Monday, February 8, 2016
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