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Errant Cell Calls Are Clogging 911 System

November 17, 2002|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

As a veteran 911 operator with the California Highway Patrol, Deanna Mora has been trained to calm distraught murder witnesses, comfort suicidal callers and make peace during angry domestic disputes.

But she was not prepared for the call she received not long ago from an upset woman who had just left a pet grooming salon in Orange County. The woman's emergency? Her dog had just received a bad haircut and she wanted the police to take some action.

Nearly half of the 7.2 million 911 calls made in California from cellular phones last year were either not for emergencies -- of the bad dog-haircut sort -- or accidental calls made when a cell phone owner unintentionally dialed the emergency number.

The problem is expected to grow with the proliferation of cell phones. Of the 150 million 911 calls made nationwide in 2000, 45 million, or 30%, came from cell phones. This is a tenfold increase from nearly 4.3 million wireless 911 calls just 10 years ago.

By 2005, most 911 calls are expected to be from wireless callers.

Law enforcement officials say there is no way to tell for certain if the delays caused by bogus 911 calls have led to deaths or injuries. But it is certain that such calls have clogged the system and increased the frustration level among 911 operators.

"Everyone loves cell phones, but they can be a headache for us," said CHP Capt. Dan Hoff, commander of the Los Angeles communications center, which fielded 1.8 million cellular 911 calls last year, more than three times as many as in 1996. In California, the CHP takes most 911 cellular calls. Hoff estimates that as many as 60% of those calls are nonemergency or accidental calls.

Hoping to educate cell phone owners on the problem, the CHP for the first time has joined with the Automobile Club of Southern California to produce and air a television commercial warning that accidental and bogus 911 calls can delay calls on truly life-threatening emergencies.

The new commercial, which is running for three weeks in Los Angeles and San Diego counties, depicts a man who accidentally pushes the 911 auto-dial feature on his cell phone while ordering coffee at a coffee bar. Most cell phones are programmed to dial 911 automatically with the push of one button.

In the commercial, the 911 operator assumes the man is reporting a fire because she hears him yelling: "HOT! BURNING! FIRE!" In the ad, the man is referring to the steaming cup of coffee he has just been handed.

To reduce the number of such calls, the CHP and the Auto Club urge cell phone users to disable the single-button 911 feature. Cellular industry leaders support the campaign, noting that most new phones come with the feature already disabled.

Many cellular carriers don't include a notice of 911 calls on their bills, so callers usually don't know they have accidentally called the emergency number.

In Southern California, the problem is serious.

On a recent afternoon at the Los Angeles communications center, emergency operator Susana Carrillo, an 11-year veteran of the CHP, responded to more than 10 accidental 911 calls in about an hour.

In most of those calls, Carrillo heard nothing but dead air. In others, she could hear music, the sounds of people walking down a city street and people casually talking about lunch. She called out in vain: "911 emergency. Hello?"

In several calls, Carrillo could hear the bumping and scraping of small items, which she guessed were the sounds picked up by a cell phone inside a purse or backpack.

To ensure that she doesn't dismiss a true emergency, Carrillo is required to listen for a few seconds. The CHP does not have the technology to identify the location of a cellular 911 call. If a 911 operator is not sure whether a call is for a legitimate emergency, the operator can call the cell phone back and ask if the caller meant to dial 911. Usually, the embarrassed cell phone owner will apologize, promising to be more careful in the future.

A few weeks ago, Mora answered a 911 call that she assumed was a legitimate emergency because she heard loud, angry voices in the background. She called the cell phone back and learned that someone had accidentally dialed 911 while watching a violent movie on television.

Mora said she once answered a 911 call, only to hear screaming voices combined with the sounds of wheels speeding on a rail. Mora called the cell phone back and learned that the caller had accidentally bumped the phone while riding on a roller coaster.

But accidental calls are only part of the problem. Many cell phone owners have intentionally dialed 911 for the most inane reasons.

They call to ask for the correct time. They want directions to a restaurant or Disneyland. They want to know why traffic is moving so slowly. Several 911 operators say they have received calls from men who were stuck in traffic and wanted the CHP to call their wives to explain that the men would be late for dinner.

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