Frustrated by the large volume of 911 calls caused by people accidentally hitting programmed buttons on their cell phones, police and emergency response authorities are seeking new ways to keep systems from becoming overloaded.
Nearly two-thirds of all the 911 calls from wireless phones in California, and even higher proportions elsewhere in the country, involve people pushing emergency buttons on their cell phone keypads without knowing it, authorities say.
Local and national authorities say it is impossible to know whether delays caused by the problem have led to serious injuries or deaths. But for sure, they say, emergency phone lines are becoming clogged and 911 operators are finding their jobs more aggravating and hectic.
"It's just, 'Oops! I didn't mean to call you. Oops! I didn't mean to call you,' all day long," said Diane Chupinski, communications supervisor at the California Highway Patrol's Golden Gate Communications Center in Vallejo.
The CHP handles most wireless 911 calls in the state. Emergency calls made from non-cellular phones are mostly handled by police and fire agencies throughout the state.
At the Golden Gate center, which fields wireless 911 calls from nine Northern California counties, callers wait as long as 90 seconds for an operator, Chupinski said. In the late 1990s, the average wait was only eight seconds, she said.
Other wireless 911 centers report similar difficulties. At the CHP dispatch center in Los Angeles, accidentally placed calls constitute 40% to 60% of the total received.
A police spokesman in Reno said that as many as 75% of all wireless phone calls into that area's 911 center are accidental on any given day.
"Our operators just say, 'Hello? Hello? Hello?' And no one's there," Reno Police Lt. Jim Ballard said.
20 Million Calls Go Wrong Each Year
Accidental 911 wireless calls now total about 20 million a year nationwide, and the number is increasing by 30% annually, said Roger Hixson, technical issues director for the National Emergency Number Assn., an advocacy group in Columbus, Ohio.
Although he could not cite a specific case in which sluggish 911 phone systems hindered response to a genuine emergency, Hixson and other experts said there is potential for people in trouble to be harmed, either because of long waits or because 911 operators mistakenly assume that a disconnected call was unintentional.
"Certainly [such calls] take up time and effort, and in some cases it causes additional costs," he said.
The problem is not limited to the United States, said Rana Sampson of Community Policing Associates in San Diego, who has done consulting work for law enforcement on the issue.
Auto-dial 911 functions are standard on many cell phones. If the function is not deactivated, each time a phone rolls in a purse or someone accidentally sits on the keypad, there is a chance that a 911 call will be made, emergency officials say.
Dispatchers describe taking 10 calls in a row in which the only noise on the other end was a meeting in session, a stereo playing or someone's conversation.
One of the most common experiences is hearing construction noise, dispatchers say. They figure that is probably because construction workers wear phones on their belts and are likely to bump into things.
"You hear people building roofs, walking on gravel. That is a sound we have actually learned to recognize," Chupinski said.
"Saws and hammering," echoed Paula Wells, communications supervisor of the CHP's Los Angeles dispatch center. "Or you hear schoolteachers with kids in the background. I've even heard the Pledge of Allegiance."
Some cellular companies have recently moved to fix the problem. But so many cell phones with auto-dial 911 features have been sold that officials say the flood of accidental dialing probably is not likely to ebb soon.
Although most cell phones have lock functions to prevent accidental calls, some industry insiders concede that many people don't know how to use them. Many cell phone owners may not read far enough into their instruction manuals to even know their phones have a 911 function, they say.
Dispatch officials began to notice the problem a few years ago. But it has grown acute in the last couple of years as cell phones have become ubiquitous.
Today, about a quarter of all 911 calls nationwide are from cell phones--10 times the number a decade ago, said Sampson, the San Diego consultant.
Hixson said about half of the 5,000 locations across the United States answering 911 calls handle those from wireless phones.
The CHP has been answering most wireless 911 calls in the state before routing them to local agencies as needed.
This means the agency has handled so many inadvertent calls that Los Angeles dispatchers have abandoned the practice of automatically calling back people who have been cut off. Instead, operators selectively decide whom to call back based on instinct and experience.