Archive for Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Shouts and Murmurs: Locking out unnecessary 911 calls

December 1, 2004

Until this week, I thought the keypad lock on my cell phone was a nuisance.

Every now and then the right combination of keys accidentally would be pushed and I'd have to stop and figure out how to unlock it.

But after talking with Leavenworth County emergency dispatcher Perry Carter, I'm trying to get in the habit of locking my cell phone's keypad unless I'm calling someone.

That's because, as Carter told me, if any number is pushed down long enough on a cell phone, it will automatically dial 911.

And in the dispatch office, when 911 calls come in, they're quickly noticed. On one of a dispatcher's four computer monitors, 911 calls elicit flashing bright colors and a siren-like alarm that can't be missed.

The legitimate 911 calls, those that deal with emergencies, deserve this attention.

But unfortunately, all too often the 911 calls have nothing to do with an emergency. They accidentally can be dialed by a cell phone, by a home cordless phone that has a dying battery or by a fax machine.

And of course, there are other ways to dial 911 without knowing it. For instance, Carter said, any time the numbers 911 are dialed in a phone number, the call will go through as an emergency.

On some days, maybe half a dozen of unintended 911 calls come in, Carter said. And on other days, the dispatcher may get that many false 911 calls an hour.

Many of us may have called 911 without even knowing it. For instance, we had an early morning visitor at our house a few years back.

A sheriff's deputy's headlights were bright in the driveway as he knocked at our door, saying there had been a 911 hang-up from our phone number.

We thought they had been mistaken, for everyone in our house had been sleeping.

But after talking to Carter last week, I realized our cordless phone's battery was probably weak and for some reason the phone connected with 911.

It's likely the dispatchers tried to call our house, and because the phone was on the fritz, they got a busy signal. So they send a deputy to check -- common procedure on 911 hang-ups.

Throughout the county, similar situations arise every day -- causing additional work for dispatchers and law enforcement officers.

The dispatchers' sophisticated computer system records all calls, and keeps an ongoing log of all calls made to 911. For instance, Carter can type in any address and see how many 911 calls -- emergency and non-emergency -- have been made from that home or business.

Obviously, the 911 system is set up so that emergency calls get the attention they deserve.

But when non-emergency calls must be checked out as well, they take valuable time and manpower from other law enforcement duties.

While 911 phone calls from land lines can be traced to a location, cell phones are a little bit trickier.

Through a global positioning system, dispatchers are able to know the general location of where a 911 cell phone call was made.

But finding that exact location would take a little more time -- an effort in frustration after it turns out the call was accidentally dialed by a cell phone.

So, do a favor for local law enforcement officers and dispatchers alike -- take Perry Carter's advice and lock your keypad today.

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