911 dispatchers spend hours each day on accidental calls

911 dispatchers spend hours each day on accidental calls


by Jamie Grey

Bio | Email | Follow: @KTVBJamieGrey


Posted on March 10, 2012 at 4:16 PM

Updated Saturday, Mar 10 at 4:16 PM

BOISE -- Local dispatchers are spending hours every day chasing down accidental 911 calls; many are from kids playing on cell phones.  In Ada County, dispatchers spend hours each day dealing with accidental calls.

Ada County Sheriff's Office dispatchers say they get around 10,000 calls a month.  Out of those, around 1,000 are accidental, such as pocket dialing or children calling.  That breaks down to more than 30 every day, which take up about three hours of dispatcher time daily.

Kids calling 911

In the hour KTVB spent at Ada County dispatch, we witnessed what dispatchers say happens dozens of times every day:  Calls coming to 911 that are clearly not emergencies, but accidents.

Here's an excerpt from a recent call:

Dispatcher: "911 Do you need police fire or paramedics?"
Kid: "I want to call someone."
Dispatcher: "This is 911, do you have an emergency?"
Kid: "No."
Dispatcher: "Okay, you need to not be playing with this phone because you've called 911."

Cell phones call 911 even when disconnected

What's happening many times is parents give kids their old, deactivated cell phones, but what they don't realize is a safety feature still allows the phones to continue calling 911.

"The 911 calls come from phones that have no service that's been disconnected but they still have a battery in them," Stephen Holler, dispatcher and training officer, said.  "They will still call 911, so if they're given to a child to play with and they start pushing buttons... They don't even have to dial 911, it's any button on the phone that they push will dial into here."

Treating every call like an emergency

The accidental calls KTVB heard during the shoot turned out to be pocket dials and kids playing with phones.  But it took the dispatcher several minutes to confirm that.

"We can't discount any calls," Holler said.  "We have to treat every call like it's an emergency until we can prove otherwise."

Holler says it can be especially difficult because some 911 calls might sound like children, but really be an adult in trouble.

"People calling 911 will be in a state of shock, adrenaline's flowing, hyperventilating.  It might sound like a kid, but you never know who you're talking to," Holler said.

10% of calls are accidental

Dispatchers are averaging three hours a day on accidental calls. 

"If you have somebody with a medical condition or something like that, then for three hours a day, you've got dispatchers out of position, and not available to help them," Holler said.

Here's another call example where the dispatcher realizes it's a child with an old phone:

Dispatcher: "What are you doing?"
Child: "Well, I have my own phone now."
Eventually, the dispatcher gets a grandparent on the phone.
Dispatcher:  "Hi, this is the 911 operator."
Grandmother:  "Oh my gosh, did my grandson call you?"
Dispatcher: "Yeah, this phone even though it looks like it doesn't have service on it, they can still dial 911 if there's a battery in it."

Dispatchers ask parents for help

"We do ask that if they are going to let ... the kids play with it, take the battery out.  We would appreciate that," Holler said.

If a child, or anyone, calls 911 accidentally, dispatchers say do not hang up.  Even if the 'send' button is barely tapped, dispatchers are already getting the call; you can't hang up faster than they get the call.

"Just stay on the line, let us know it was an accident, and that everything's okay," Holler said. 

Another challenge with these calls is if the phone is deactivated, there's no number for dispatchers to call back to or trace.  That said, if anything about a call seems suspicious or like a potential emergency, dispatchers will work to find out what's going on and may send officers to investigate the area.

Don't be afraid to call 911

Dispatchers don't want to deter people from calling 911.  If you're unsure of whether you should call about something or just might need police, fire, or paramedics, they say just call them.  They have the staff available and training to know whether to send a crew.