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'Butt Dialing,' Deactivated Phones Calling 911 Operators More Often

Deactivated cell phones that parents give to small children as toys can still call 911.

Fairfax County 911 call-taking area; photo courtesy of Fairfax County
Fairfax County 911 call-taking area; photo courtesy of Fairfax County
By Beth Lawton

Fairfax County's 911 operators are spending a large amount of their time fielding calls from people who are "pocket dialing" and from children playing with deactivated cell phones, Steve McMurrer, 911 systems administrator for Fairfax County, said.

The county receives about a million 911 calls a year, but is not officially tracking how many of those are accidental calls, McMurrer said--but they probably number in the thousands.

A report last year showed that 40 percent of the 911 calls that the city of New York was fielding were accidental calls.

A county commissioner from Delaware, Allan Angel, who is running for second vice president at the National Association of Counties this year, notes accidental calls to 911 as a top problem for county officials around the country:
  • Growth of Text/video/social media 911 calls: Without significant financial resources, the growth of nonverbal communications will challenge the ability of emergency dispatch personnel to receive and respond appropriately in life-saving situations.
It's a problem that seems to be increasing in Fairfax County. "We get numerous calls from people who don't realize they've called 911," McMurrer said this week. "They're unintentional calls that typically consume quite a bit of effort; if we get that call, we attempt to speak to that person, we attempt to determine if they're in an emergency, we call them back if it hangs up to determine if there's an emergency, if it sounds like an emergency."

The county is fielding "thousands of those calls a month, calls we have to check out," he said Wednesday. On Thursday, he said he was uncertain of the number. 

Another problem, he said, is that operators do not have an exact address when someone calls from a cell phone, if they need to send someone to check on whether a call is a true emergency. "Calls will come from an apartment building, we don't know what floor they're on."

The calls coming from deactivated cell phones are those that are no longer in service, but people have them sitting around their house, McMurrer said. 

"Children find them, amuse themselves and get somebody to answer," he said.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, you can help reduce accidental 911 calls by:
  • Locking keypads using the keypad lock feature. Keypad locks, some of which can be programmed to activate automatically, prevent a phone from responding to keystrokes until you unlock the keypad using a short combination of key presses.
  • Turning off the 911 auto-dial feature, if your phone has one. To determine whether your phone has this feature and how to turn it off, check your user manual or the manufacturer’s website, or call your service provider.

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