The hangup with 911


WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – Almost every one of us carries a cell phone, and in an emergency, they give us instant access to help. But this modern-day convenience comes with a consequence dispatchers never imagined. Just last month, police arrested a man for making 743 calls to 9-1-1 in about a week. We examine the shocking number of 911 misdials, and how they could be costing you valuable time when your life is at risk.

Sedgwick County 911 answered just shy of 600,000 calls for 32 different agencies, last year. Would you believe 140,000, or nearly a quarter of those, were misdials. That’s up about 50,000 from 2014, and managers say they’re desperate for help.

Consider this: Maybe your house is on fire… or a loved one is facing a medical crisis. You frantically dial 911, but find yourself waiting for an answer because a call taker is dealing with a call from a child playing with a phone.

It seems harmless enough, but, during peak times, answering that call could be the one thing separating you from life-saving care.

“If something is happening, if your home’s on fire, if you’re getting beaten up, 30 seconds is a long time,” Elora Forshee, Director of Emergency Communications for Sedgwick Co., told us.

A first-hand look

So we wanted to see first-hand just how big a problem this really is. We were given access to the call center floor at 911 and a chance to observe dispatcher, Laura Meyers, to see just how long it would take to get a 911 hangup.

As expected, it didn’t take long even when call volume was low. Fifteen minutes after we sat down, we got our first misdial. It was our fifth call, or 20 percent, almost exactly what’s become the standard for hangups.

Veteran dispatcher John McGowan reported similar results.

“In the first two and a half hours I was at work, it was 36 calls that I took, and seven of those were cell phone hang ups.”

The troubling trend

Sedgwick County Emergency Communications studied the trend for several months. It averages out to 384 misdials a day, and if each takes about 30 seconds to process, that’s three hours lost each day. It’s more than four days in a month… and about a month and a half each year… just on 911 hangups.

But what if the caller didn’t make a mistake? What if that person can’t say they need help?

In most places, 911 has to call back. Some even send police to respond. Sedgwick County leaders claim they just don’t have the resources to do that. So managers made the difficult choice to abandon the industry standard deciding it was no longer practical to call back on every 911 misdial. We were concerned there may be an emergency where the caller wasn’t at a place to talk.

“That is why when we have that open line we are asking is there someone on here with an emergency, push a button, things like that,” Forshee said.

Essentially, this puts much more responsibility on call takers and dispatchers to decide if it’s an emergency or a mistake.

“There’s some that are silent and you have to listen for a while to make sure there’s not a disturbance or somebody’s set the phone down,” McGowan said.

The reasons

So why does it keep happening?

The biggest reason is people forgetting to lock their phones. For most of us that involves simply pushing a button on the top or side of the phone when we’re done with them. A pass code or touch ID adds an extra layer of protection against pocket dials.

Another safety feature is simply dialing nine and one in any order can trigger an automatic call to 911. It’s great protection in a frantic moment, but can also lead to an accidental emergency call.

Another common problem is kids playing with phones. Even old phones without service can still make emergency calls as long as the battery is charged.

“They’re not toys,” McGowan reminded us. “If you’re going to give them to your children, take the battery out of it because it’s going to dial 911 automatically any button they push.”

What’s the solution?

It left us asking if it was time to consider consequences.

“There are communities looking at fining people for misdials to 9-1-1,” Forshee told us. “Locally, we’re not discussing it at this point. We don’t want to. We don’t want to be punitive.”

Of course, there are exceptions for the most egregious offenders. Cell phones can make 911 more efficient than ever before as long as we aren’t the ones causing the hangups.

“It’s a great tool for emergency services to address issues quickly and get help out there quickly, but that tool comes with side effects,” Forshee acknowledged. “It’s just like a hammer. It can build a house, but it can also hurt somebody.”

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