Trying to nix 911 nuisance calls

Danette Dooley
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Fire department fields thousands of accidental contacts each year

The St. John’s Regional Fire Department is reminding people to take care with cellphones when placing them in pockets and purses so that they don’t accidentally dial 911, wasting time and resources.

The department covers the Northeast Avalon, and all 911 calls for this area are answered by fire dispatchers, with police and ambulance calls immediately routed to the appropriate agencies.

Sherry Colford, the department’s manager of communications and program development, said of the 48,000 calls received each year, about 30,000 are police, fire or ambulance calls. The remaining 18,000 are either duplicate or accidental 911 calls.

Colford says her department will soon have the technology to determine just how many of these calls are accidental.

911 fire dispatcher Reena Stagg says dispatchers are familiar with the numbers that indicate a call is coming in from a cellphone.

If it’s an accidental call, the line could remain open with the dispatcher hearing background noise, but no one responding.

Sometimes callers hang up when they realize they’ve called 911 in error.

In both cases, Stagg says, dispatchers use their time and re-sources to make contact with the caller to ensure everything is OK.

There are also instances when incoming numbers don’t appear on the dispatcher’s display. This can happen if it’s a pay-as-you-go cellphone or a phone with a blocked number.

If the dispatcher believes the caller is in trouble, they will try to trace the call by contacting a service provider.

The service provider can give the dispatcher the person’s name, billing address and, sometimes, a landline number attached to the cellphone.

Stagg says it’s important for customers to have up-to-date information on file with their cellphone service provider.

Colford says adults with cellphones aren’t the only ones placing unintentional 911 calls.

Parents should never give a deactivated cellphone to a child to use as a toy, she says, because even if the phone is not activated, if it has a battery and the phone is turned on, it can still dial 911.

“We have no idea who you are and we can’t call you back. So, we have run into issues where … it’s a long process trying to track them down to make them aware that their child has a cellphone that’s calling 911,” Colford says.

To cut down on accidental calls, Colford suggests that if people have 911 pre-programmed into their phones and are comfortable removing it, they should do so.

Marc Choma, director of communications with the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, takes the issue one step further.

Auto-dial options are unsafe, he contends, and in some provinces — including Nova Scotia — illegal.

There is no reason why anyone should pre-program 911 into their cellphone or any other type of phone, Choma says.

“(911) is just three little taps on your keypad. (Pre-programming) is not going to save you any time in an emergency. And by not doing it you’re going to avoid wasting call-takers’ precious time, because they’ve got real emergencies to deal with.”

Choma says while service providers do not pre-program 911 into cellphones, a user may get a prompt when the screen is locked and buttons are being pressed, asking if they are trying to place an emergency call.

“The phone thinks you’re trying to make an emergency call, but you don’t know how to unlock it,” he says.

Cheryl Gullage, public relations specialist with Fire and Emergency Services Newfoundland and Labrador says it’s not illegal in this province to pre-program emergency numbers into phones.

Karen Thistle, the St. John’s Regional Fire Department’s communications supervisor, says people who accidentally dial 911 should stay on the line rather than hang up.

“You’re not going to get in trouble. All we need to know is that everyone is OK,” she said.

Organizations: Regional Fire Department, Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, Fire and Emergency Services Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: Northeast Avalon, Nova Scotia

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Recent comments

  • goopspotty
    July 23, 2011 - 22:30

    I can't understand why the city would send a police car, a recue unit and an ambulance for one person who is just ill and needs to be taken to the hospital because they are unable to drive and only send a rescue unit and an ambulance for another person under the same circumstances. It seems to me to be a waste of taxpayer's money to send a police car, too, when the police should be out there apprehending crimals and not summoned for such an occasion where they are certainly not needed. I certainly can't understand why this is done.

  • Donny Dooley Dildo NL
    March 14, 2011 - 09:06

    Listen, all day long the fire deparment in St. John's are getting dispatched to homes because some rich guy, with an alarm system, burned his popcorn yet the poor crowd are forced to jump out of their 2nd story window onto a mattress if their house is on fire. Listen, if we send several vehicles including a pumper truck, ladder truck, rescue unit, ambulance and police to your home because you burned your BAGEL you should be sent a bill for services. You wouldn't be long hauling the battery out of it!