CARROLLTON, Texas — Technology is making it easier to call 911 for help in an emergency, but some experts say it’s also making it easier to dial the number by accident.
Operators at the North Texas Emergency Communications Center in Carrollton are picking up more 911 calls that end up being a dead air or a simple pocket dial.
Operator Kristian Smith says she picked up one call last week and received only silence in response. “… No one’s on the line.”
Smith says she gets that several times a day as she answers calls from NTECC’s four city service area in northern Dallas County.
“Sometimes, you know, they are 911 hang-ups. We get a lot of children,” says Smith, “Like, the parents forget the phone can still dial 911.”
Smith and her fellow operators say those kinds of calls have always been a part of 911 responses. However, the newer problem calls are seemingly because of phones’ technological advancement.
“It’s so easy!” says long-time 911 operator and NTECC administrative services manager Jacquea Lampkins, holding her own smartphone and bringing it to her back pocket as an example. “Even having your phone here. It’s against your back [so] it’s easy to click it and if you don’t lock your phone, you’re easy to dial 911.”
The 911 pocket dial, or otherwise known as a “butt dial,” is a rather common occurrence. However, Lampkins says that’s not the only reason technology is leading to more false calls.
There’s a growing list of safety features added to smart phones, smart watches and tablets, giving users more ways to reach out in an emergency. Operators think these features make it easier to trigger a 911 call by accident. According to Apple, the iPhone can open its emergency call screen by holding down the volume and side buttons at the same time, then users can swipe the “Emergency SOS” button to reach 911.
But Apple says continuing to hold the buttons down will automatically trigger the call. On some models, the company says five clicks of the side button will also lead to an emergency call option.
Android phones offer similar ways to trigger emergency calls. Lampkins says these features have been accidentally triggered by callers on their 911 system. Operators even say phones’ voice assistants can also result in a false call, if triggered accidentally.
“Siri will pick up on your voice, and if you say ‘911,’ that may trigger her to call for you,” says Lampkins.
Smart watches have also introduced its own “Swipe to Call 911” features that can be accidentally triggered when the watch face is active. Directors at NTECC have also saved call samples they’ve received caused by an impact to smart watches. A fall or dropping of the device can trigger an emergency mode that, if not responded to, will also automatically call 911.
Lampkins says all of the features can absolutely be lifesavers, but they’re also undoubtedly raising false alarms to their call center and others.
In the last six months, leaders at NTECC report they’ve answered more than 7,500 abandoned calls, and that’s just calls coming from four cities. That number, leaders say, is up about 10% from the same time period last year.
Now, NTECC’s executive director Terry Goswick says that only makes up a few percent of their annual calls to 911, but he says those calls never simply end with the initial accidental call.
“There’s a lot of going back and forth with calling, hanging up, calling, hanging up,” says Lampkins.
It’s not like a pocket dial from a family member that you can just ignore, explains Lampkins. Her and her fellow operators have to follow up on every single one of those abandoned calls to make sure they were accidents.
She said sometimes that’s a simple call to confirm someone is okay, but she says oftentimes people don’t pick up the call coming from a number they likely don’t recognize — especially if they don’t realize their device placed the 911 call for them in the first place. That can result in multiple calls back having to be placed, and if that doesn’t work she says they have to send police to the location to do an in-person check-up.
In total, NTECC leaders say their operators have spent a combined 253 hours over the last six months trying to sort out accidental calls.
Lampkins says a lot of her outreach for the call center includes educating people about the importance of placing your phone on a “sleep mode” when you put it in your pocket, and generally knowing how your technology works to avoid those accidental calls.
When it does happen, Smith says she tries to always be kind as oftentimes these callers are embarrassed by the blunder.
“It’s okay, I don’t mind calling back because sometimes maybe there is someone on that other line that needs assistance,” says Smith.
The operators say these tools are important, so they don’t expect the accidental calls to end anytime soon. But Lampkins says the best way you can help, aside from a little technology awareness, is to just pick up when those accidents happen as they’re just trying to check in on you.
“We are here to help you! Don’t ghost us, talk to us and let us know you’re okay,” says Lampkins.