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Columns : Editorial

Wasting Emergency Assets

Millions of dollars and many police labor hours could be saved by changing the way cellphones call 911.

June 07, 2012  |  by - Also by this author

Photo: Paul Clinton
Photo: Paul Clinton

Back in April, POLICE Magazine publisher Leslie Pfeiffer wrote an editorial about the training crisis in law enforcement. When public safety budgets are tight, as they have been for years now, training is one of the first things that gets sacrificed. The equation that the bean counters seem to be working with is that they have to cut services such as patrol and investigations or cut training. So training gets the axe. Never mind the fact that training saves officer and civilian lives. The people who write the checks see it as an expensive luxury, one that their beleaguered government budgets can't cover.

Whenever anyone starts discussing government budgets and ways to cut those budgets or find money to augment those budgets, one of the first things they mention is "government waste." But rarely does anyone mention any specific examples of government waste and how that waste can be eliminated.

Last month a variety of mainstream media outlets identified a terrible example of government waste: unintentional and non-emergency dialing of 911 is epidemic.

Something like 38% of all 911 calls in New York City are now attributed to the phenomenon known as "butt-dialing." In other words, someone sits on his or her cellphone and speed dials the emergency number. The New York City 911 operators receive 10.4 million calls a year and nearly 4 million of them are accidental.

And the Big Apple is not alone in suffering from this problem. It's a nationwide plague caused by a little-known cellphone feature.

"People don't realize their phones are programmed to call 911 if a certain button is pushed," Mike Miller, a Michigan State Police radio dispatcher told the Los Angeles Times. "They put their phones in their pockets or purses, and they move around and the buttons get pushed. One day I had 94 calls from cellphones that were accidental or hang-ups."

Because of the potential for inadvertent 911 dialing, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) recommends that cellphone users remove the pre-programmed 911 feature. Only one problem with that idea: Most people aren’t aware of such a feature on their cellphones. And even fewer people know how to disarm the damned things.

"It's a classic case of unintended consequences," Mark Adams, NENA executive director, told the Times. "The wireless industry intends to make a phone that is safer, but people inadvertently hit the button and call 911. These calls alone get staggering when you talk about the resources they tie up." And the money they waste.

Also, it's not just butt-dialing that causes the problem. The 911 features on cellphones can be used even after the phone itself is no longer activated. A lot of people give old phones to their kids as toys, and the kids quickly learn that the only person they can call is the 911 operator.

It's time to do something about this. Accidental dialing and child dialing of 911 is costing county and municipal public safety agencies millions. And the cellphone features that cause this waste are totally unnecessary.

Do we really need a single-button speed dial for 911? I mean, c'mon, even three-year-olds know how to dial 911 (which is part of the problem). So can't we have the manufacturers discontinue this feature, a feature that most of us don't even know about? I have no idea how to one-button dial 911 on my iPhone, nor do I care to know.

And is there really a compelling reason to permit 911 calls on deactivated phones? I ask the 911 communications personnel in our audience: How often does someone legitimately dial 911 on a phone that no longer has phone service?

Wasting public safety assets with butt-dialed 911 calls and calls from bored children is costly to the taxpayers and an annoyance to trained personnel. Worse, it makes it harder for you and your firefighter and EMT counterparts to respond promptly to real emergencies.

There are two ways to end this problem. Congress could pass some kind of restrictive law that prohibits cellphone manufacturers from including these features in their products. Or better yet, public safety associations and unions could approach the manufacturers and just ask them to stop programming their phones to cause the problem.

I can't guarantee that this would mean that the money now wasted on butt-dialed 911 calls would be repurposed to training. But at least there might be some more flexibility in your agency's budget.


Accidental 911 Calls Drain Police Resources In NYC

Law Enforcement Training Crisis

Comments (3)

Displaying 1 - 3 of 3

ray @ 6/10/2012 5:10 AM

fyi: thats 10.4 million calls a YEAR not A DAY that NYPD recieves.

FireCop @ 6/20/2012 3:50 AM

That's why I stopped giving my cell phone number out to most people. I'd get called at all hours of the night when they were at parties and social events and no voice on the other end; just lots of drunk people having fun. The way to end this is to pass a law that allows the 911 center to add a fine to the person's phone bill for a 'false alarm call'. Once you hurt them in the pocket book, they'll figure out a way fast to take that feature off of their phone. Be safe.

321 @ 7/17/2012 9:50 AM

One wasted 911 aspect not addressed is, 911 misdials from homes and businesses. My department responds to EVERY one of these calls, and those mentioned in the editorial. Discretion was removed years ago after a fatal error made by dispatch. Now when someone at a business dials "9" to get an outside line, and they want to dial long-distance, they dial "1", that person is one digit away from a 911 call. It happens all of the time in my jurisdiction. For a small city, I've responded to as many as 14 of these calls in one day shift. There are thousands each year here. My PD asks businesses to change their outside line access number to "8", but very few have. For those that have made the change, the response to 911 misdials has dried up. Making the change to "8" is an easy solution, but almost nobody does it.

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