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Tampa Bay 911 dispatchers busy with butt-dialers

4:52 PM, May 9, 2012   |    comments
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Clearwater, Florida -- If you have to wait for a 911 dispatcher to pick up your call, there's a good chance the delay is due to a person who wasn't even trying to call-in an emergency.

The growing number of misdialed 911 calls is a troubling trend. More cell phones are leading to more misdialing.

Dispatchers say it's shocking how much of their day is now spent listening to the other end of a phone call where the only sound is of muffled voices, or in many cases nothing at all.

Some people jokingly call it "butt dialing," but emergency workers call it dangerous.

"We've taken another six of them," says Pinellas County 911 dispatcher Mike Hammond looking at the misdialed call-list on his screen.

By the time Hammond is halfway through his shift, he's often taken up valuable time answering invalid 911 calls, spending between 10 and 30 seconds on each. More if he has to call back.

"I've had days where I'll take five or six of them in a row without taking any other kind of medical, police call or nothing," says Hammond.

It's a growing problem brought to light by a newly released report out of New York City where up to 40% of 911 calls are dialed by accident.

In Pinellas County, their most recent stats from 2010, show the number at closer to 20 percent. Still, 112,000 of the 547,000 calls handled in 2010 were abandoned or open-line calls that might have slowed response to real emergencies.

"It takes someone away from the phone line when they could be answering another 911 call," say Hammond.

Many of the false phone calls are from cell phones getting knocked around in purses, or, as in Maria Bedon's case, keeping it in her back pocket.

Maria admitted to doing her share of "butt-dialing" but wasn't sure if she'd ever mistakenly called 911.

"I can sit on it and call 911 apparently. So I'm going to keep it in the front (pocket) now," she said.

Many phones also have a feature where, even if locked, there's a working button for emergency calls. Hit it by accident, and you may have just called 911.

"If you do notice you accidentally just stay on the phone and tell us you accidently called. We don't have any problem with that whatsoever," said Hammond, "You're not going to get in trouble for it."

In fact, says Hammond, it saves them the time of having to call back.

It turns out another major problem is children, using old phones as toys. As long as they have a working battery, even cell phones without paid service will still call 911.

Dispatch Supervisor Andrea Henry's advice is to "make sure that they take the batteries out, because as long as the battery is out, there won't be access to us."

Dispatchers also recommend putting phones on a clip instead of in your pocket, and keeping it in a section of your bag where it's less likely to come in contact with other items that may dial it by accident.

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