Cell Phones Pocket Dialing a Big 911 Nuisance

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COLUMBIA - It has happened to most of us at some point. You put your cell phone in your pocket and it auto-dials someone. But this minor inconvenience for us is a big problem for the Boone County 911 Center, call takers said.

The phantom cell phone calls come in many times a day, every day. Call takers said it is one of the most common types of calls received at the center.

Call takers are required to take every call seriously. So if a caller does not speak, the 911 operator must call the person back, verify a location, and assess the situation. Operators cannot just assume it is not an emergency. They say this is gets in the way of handling real emergencies.

Pocket dials happen so frequently call takers said they begin to be able to tell them just by sound. Common signs of an unintended pocket dial call are rustling of pants and casual background conversation with the participants seemingly unaware that they are on the phone.

But when the 911 call center tries to call people back to verify the calls, this raises other issues. Because the call from the 911 center shows up as a 'blocked' call, many people will not answer the calls and they go to voicemail. And even when people do answer, call takers said, some people get defensive and deny having called 911.

This complicates the matter for 911 operators who are trying to verify their equipment is working properly, besides trying to provide assistance.

If no one answers a call back from the 911 center, it is harder for the 911 center and police to handle the call. When someone calls 911 form a land line, the center knows the exact address of the caller. But when calling from a cell phone, the system shows only an approximation on a map based on the cell phone tower and a radius in which the caller may be.  The location will move if the person is in a car or could jump from tower to tower, call takers said. Sometimes if 911 centers probe the cell tower for an updated location, it will give better information after a refresh, call takers said. But if the call taker is unable to verify the location with a person, the police have only a general location to go on within a couple of blocks.

Another common source of unintended 911 calls is children playing with deactivated cell phones given as toys. The cell phones are still able to call 911 but because they are deactivated the 911 call takers cannot call the phone back. Sometimes a child will speak or the parent will come on the line when they realize the child has called someone, but if not, the 911 call takers will enter the call into the system as an active incident.

Sometimes the police will show up at the person's door at take the cell phone from the child, one call taker said.

The 911 operators enter every call into their system, though they will add notes if they believe it is a pocket dial or child playing with a cell phone. It is up to the police to decide how to handle the call once it is sent to them. Officer Latisha Stroer of the Columbia Police Department said it is up to the supervisor on duty to determine what steps to take.

Adds one call taker, "If you do accidentally call 911, don't freak out. Don't hang up or get defensive if we call you back. And just try and answer clarifying questions."