'Pocket calls' to 911 now being tracked

Steve
Steve Bartlett
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911 dispatcher Heather DeHann displays a cellphone showing a 911 call. New software will help dispatchers deal with unintentional

New computer software will give officials a better handle on the number of "pocket calls" Northeast Avalon mobile users make to 911.

A pocket call is an accidentally dialed number from a cellphone and such calls to 911 are increasing across the country due to the increase in smart phones, most of which are pre-programmed to make emergency calls.

"We can have callers that can call 911 three or four times in a row, not realizing they are continuously hitting that button," says Sherry Colford.

She's manager of communications and program development with the St. John's Regional Fire Department, which operates the 911 communications centre for the Northeast Avalon.

The centre receives about 48,000 calls a year. Colford said she knows a lot of the 18,000 non-emergency, duplicate or accidental calls received annually are from pocket calls.

"When we see our statistics every year, we do see our numbers coming up," she says.

Colford hasn't been able to compile exact stats on pocket dialling because the centre's system couldn't be programmed to distinguish between cellphones and landlines.

But that changed when the calender flipped to 2012 and the new Fire Database Management System was launched.

Among other benefits to the fire department, the new software enables the communications centre to track pocket calls.

Colford is excited to see what the stats are because they'll be useful in determining preventative measures.

Danny Breen, the St. John's councillor who co-chairs the regional fire services committee, agrees.

"I think by tracking this you'll probably get some better information on how widespread the problem is and then be able to target what kind of education you need to do it," he says.

While the mis-dialings haven't presented serious life or death issues, Colford says they're problematic because dispatchers are tied up trying to return calls to cellphones.

There are two dispatchers at the centre 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

They are obligated to return every accidental call to make sure everything is all right.

"I think (the dispatchers) can get frustrated at times," Colford says.

But as much of a nuisance as they are, the pocket calls have also been amusing at times.

"Sometimes if we answer the call, we'll hear somebody singing," Colford says. "We've gotten conversations that I'm sure people didn't want us to hear on the phone."

There are a couple of things she'd like people to hear.

One is that if they call 911 by accident, they should stay on the line and talk to the dispatcher.

"It's not a big deal. We'd prefer that you just stay on the phone. We get to make sure everything is OK, and then that doesn't tie up our resources trying to call you back."

Colford would also like people to disable 911 on the cellphones permanently.

sbartlett@thetelegram.com Twitter: @bartlett_steve

Organizations: Fire Database Management System

Geographic location: Northeast Avalon, St. John's

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Recent comments

  • You're Gone By
    January 15, 2012 - 09:08

    Your suggestions are absolutely out to lunch. Thanks be to God most elected politicians have more sense.

  • Wish
    January 15, 2012 - 07:38

    Did you read the full article?- the calls are ACCIDENTAL... meaning most people are pocket dialing... as in they don't know they are doing it....

  • John
    January 14, 2012 - 09:21

    911 was designated an emergency number because it is an easy number to remember during an emergency. Emergency services should have a 3 strike policy - the 3rd time people accidentally call 911, there is an automatic fine of $500.00 and phone service to the cell number for 6 mths. If that doesn't work, maybe a minimum of 6 mths at Lake View Hotel having to serve the full 6 mths - no parole - will change their mind about having accidental calls to 911. Imagine one of your children were in a serious accident, a fire or medical emergency, the dispachers were busy responding to a non-emergency call and or emergency services had to be dispatched from a more distant station. SECONDS DO LIERALLY MEAN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LIFE AND DEATH DURING AN EMERGENCY!!!

    • Ang
      January 15, 2012 - 07:54

      @John, I think your solution is a little excessive, though i understand where you are coming from, seconds do make a difference. However, some of these calls are not prank or purposeful, they are talking about "accidental" calls, therefore should someone be prosecuted for an accident? I think there should be a better set up on a cell phone for the emergency call button, and the new touch screens are even easier to make pocket calls with. People just need to be more aware and realize that, yes, seconds do matter, and be much more careful with their phones - we are not the only people in this world, and we have to start thinking about others with our actions - even the way we handle our phones. Use a case instead of throwing it in your pocket or purse, disable the emerg function ... there are ways that we can be aware, we just have to be aware.

  • Joe
    January 14, 2012 - 08:28

    Smart phones aren't so smart when operated by stunned people.