The Daily: Butt dialing overwhelming America's 911 call centers

CLEVELAND - An epidemic of butt dialing is overwhelming America's emergency response centers. For every 100 calls made to 911 this year in the U.S., roughly 40 of them were accidental, said Andrew Reece, president of Winbourne Consulting, which works to improve 911 call centers to The Daily.

In all of 2010, Americans placed a total of 240 million 911 calls, up 26 percent over 1999. It adds up to about 100 million illegitimate 911 calls last year alone, or one for every three Americans.

Click here to listen to some of the wackiest recent 911 calls 

Why is it happening? Industry experts said phones jostling in purses, pockets, briefcases and bags deserve much of the blame. Some users haven't locked their keypads, others have 911 programmed into speed dial, and others accidentally triggered the phone's "emergency call" function.

The result is a delay in the effectiveness of police, fire, and EMT departments to deal with real emergencies. Call takers have to spend precious time determining whether or not a call is actually related to a real event, even if there is silence on the line.

But accidental dialing isn't the only problem that 911 call centers are facing. With most people having a cellphone, it means many multiple calls for the same incident, such as reporting highway fender-benders.

The Daily reports across the country, bad weather, road accidents and strange noises now typically generate scores of calls. On the Fourth of July last year in Wichita, Kan., citizens who tried to report a motorcycle accident to 911 were greeted with a busy signal because hundreds of people were simultaneously calling in to report fireworks. In Aug. 2011 in Tacoma, Wash., two fighter jets flying overhead caused sonic booms. This led to so many 911 calls that it jammed all six of the county's call centers.

Some people simply don't know what constitutes an emergency. In Ohio's Butler County, one responder told the local news group they get calls "asking when trick or treat is," according to a local report.

Complicating matters is the FCC's requirement that even non-initialized cellphones — ones that no longer subscribe to any plan — must be able to dial 911. In many jurisdictions, this noble-sounding policy has resulted in call centers being inundated with prank calls that are extremely difficult to trace. In Tennessee, callers from these phones made over 10,000 phony 911 calls in a three-month period.

"As the public became aware of this capability — along with the knowledge that the phone was difficult to locate — 911 centers began to see an increase in abuse of the system," write the concerned authors of a 2011 report by the Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologies.

This week, one New Jersey teen alone generated 6,000 911 calls after telling her Twitter followers to call for help because someone had broken into her house. It proved to be a hoax. 

As a result of these issues, the strain on 911 operators is large and growing. The job has a national turnover rate of between 16 and 19 percent. Dispatchers are typically paid between $30,000 and $40,000 a year, while working long shifts that require them to guide women through childbirth, teach bystanders CPR, and cope minute to minute with drownings, shootings, and horrific accidents.

So what's the solution to this butt-dial induced strain on America's all-important emergency response system? Industry experts advocate for more public education. On an individual level, Reece recommends taking 911 off speed dial, putting your iPhone on lock, and understanding that if you do accidentally 911, it's best to stay on the line so you can confirm it's not an emergency.

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