The Butt Dial Burden

Picture of Crystal Ayco By Crystal Ayco

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Accidental 9-1-1 calls (more colorfully known as “Butt” dials) continue to plague our 9-1-1 system.  This epidemic is everywhere  in the country and is getting worse, wasting tax payer money and increasing the risk of delaying the emergency response to real 9-1-1 calls.

What is a real emergency and what is not?

cayci1Fifteen years ago I began my public safety career as a 9-1-1 call taker and like many of us public safety “Lifers” I can remember a time before there was a smartphone in every pocket.

Back then, when someone called 9-1-1 and hung up or didn’t respond to questions like “What is your emergency?  Are you able to speak freely?” this often meant there was a real emergency.  Maybe the caller collapsed from a medical problem or maybe the caller couldn’t speak freely because of domestic violence.

So today, with all these extra 9-1-1 calls coming in, it’s hard to tell what is a real emergency and what is not.  To figure this out, we try to reach the caller using the resources we have --  including sending officers to check it out. Without an exact location to respond to ( a common mobile phone problem), there is little to go by.  The result? Both 9-1-1 and law enforcement may not be able to determine when and where real emergencies are happening and  spend considerable amounts of time resolving non-emergency situations .

Is this the best use of our resources?

cayco2With the frustrations of taking call after call that isn’t a real emergency, or when you can’t reach a person to ask why they called, it can be easy to forget why do what we do for every call every day..

But, let’s remember that in public safety, making broad assumptions and becoming complacent costs lives.  We cannot afford to assume that every 9-1-1 call when the caller does not speak directly in the phone or, is disconnected before speaking with an operator, is just an accidental dial.  We need to investigate every call to determine if there is an emergency.

So, how bad is it really?

cayco3The FCC has taken an interest in this growing epidemic.  Last fall, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly identifies the issue in his blog on Harmful Consumer Wireless Behavior and Practices.  O’Rielly identifies “pocket dialing” as “a huge waste of resources, [that] raises the cost of providing 911 services, depletes PSAP morale, and increases the risk that legitimate 911 calls – and first responders – will be delayed.” He is absolutely right.

While there are no official national numbers, over the last 2 years, reports from across the U.S.,  indicate that 10% to 50% of all 9-1-1 calls in that respective area were accidental . This includes Washington State, where 32% (That’s 1 in 3!) of all 9-1-1 calls processed in 2014 were identified as accidental dials.  Commissioner O’Rielly estimated that half of 9-1-1 wireless calls received while he was visiting New York City and an Anchorage 9-1-1 center were accidental.

According to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA):

  • 240 million 9-1-1 calls are made in the U.S every year
  • In many areas, 70% or more of those calls are from cell phones

Assuming 70% is the national average that would mean 168 million 9-1-1 calls are made from a cell phone, annually.  Even if 10% of those calls are accidental, that is 16.8 million accidental 9-1-1 calls every year.

With resources already stretched thin in public safety, it is hard to accept that even 1 out of every 10 calls, let alone more, are unnecessary.  More calls mean more money spent on additional staff to process these public service calls.

So, what can be done?

In his FCC blog, Commissioner O’Rielly suggested a two part solution:

  • Public education and outreach
  • Send 9-1-1 open line and hang up calls a text message so they know they accidentally dialed

While outreach has great value, it takes time before making the most impact.  Think of all the PSA’s you have seen around the dangers of “texting and driving.”  While these do help spread the message, changing behavior, in most cases, takes more than simple awareness of the problem.  Personally, I drink way too much coffee.  I know, because my doctor reminds me every time I see him, that there are negative consequences for this behavior.  I am fully aware and yet, I still do it.  Now, I’m not saying we can’t achieve results through public education and outreach.  When done well, using a multifaceted approach, it gets the job done but it takes time.

cayco4While working on spreading the word, many 9-1-1 centers I work with are focusing on more immediate results by taking on the second proposed solution – text messaging.  I am referring to using tools, such as Smart911, that allow you to text message back a phone that has dialed 9-1-1.

In addition to providing accurate detailed caller data, the Smart911 system allows 9-1-1 call takers to use the Smart911Chat feature to send a text message to any mobile number.  It even includes pre-canned messages to make this step as efficient and effective as possible.  Human behavior what it is, when calling back a 9-1-1 hang up, people do not answer the phone because of the caller ID,  --either they do not recognize it coming from a 9-1-1 center ,or they really don’t want to talk to the 9-1-1 call taker.

Text messaging resolves these issues because the recipient knows that it is the 9-1-1 center contacting them, and can easily reply. In addition to getting real information about these accidental calls, I have seen many cases where using Smart911 messaging has allowed 9-1-1 and first responders to identify real emergencies and gather critical information like the address where help is needed.

Mobile phones have caused the drastic increase in accidental dials to 9-1-1. Thankfully, solutions like Smart911Chat leverage mobile phone technology to resolve these issues more quickly and with fewer resources.

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Crystal Ayco

Written by Crystal Ayco

Crystal Ayco is the Rave Mobile Safety Customer Success Ops Sr. Manager. During the last 3 years with Rave, she has been responsible for facilitating county and statewide implementations of Rave's life-saving technologies across the nation. Crystal, previously an operations coordinator for a large 9-1-1 Center, has 15+ years 9-1-1 hands-on experience in all aspects of 9-1-1 including telecommunicator, dispatcher, training, project and operations management.

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