Butt dialing has become a national emergency in the U.S. That’s the impression that Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O’Rielly came away with after recent visits to 911 call centers in New York and Anchorage. About 70 percent of the calls came from wireless numbers, and of those, 50 percent or more were the result of someone accidentally pressing buttons when their phones were in pockets or purses.
While butt dialing is hilarious when it relates to professional baseball teams, O’Rielly finds it a threat to public health when it affects the emergency call system. By his back-of-the-napkin calculations, as many as 84 million calls are accidentally made to 911 each year. “This is a huge waste of resources, raises the cost of providing 911 services, depletes [public safety answering points] morale, and increases the risk that legitimate 911 calls—and first responders—will be delayed,” he posted on the FCC’s website on Tuesday. What’s more, the sounds that come from a phone that has been accidentally dialed—muffled speech, repeated banging, and mysterious wind-like noises—are similar to those that might come from a phone cal made by someone in trouble.
This creates a conundrum for the FCC. The agency doesn’t want to do anything to make calling 911 any harder, so O’Rielly can merely suggest ways that people might be shamed into being more careful with their devices. He proposed sending texts to people who call 911. If they genuinely face an emergency, they’ll ignore the messages, but if their butts were making the call, they might feel silly enough to stop carrying phones in back pockets. This is not the first time that the FCC has raised this issue. It has posted an advisory on its website (PDF) for several years.
Brian Fontes, chief executive of the National Emergency Number Association, questions O’Rielly’s stats on butt-dialing. He says there are no reliable figures on accidental phones calls to 911. He does agree that one kind of accidental call is easily addressed: Federal regulations require wireless devices capable of reaching 911 to work, even if they are not connected to a wireless network. In other words, danger lurks in non-working phones handed to children to keep them quiet for five minutes so adults can talk. “Be careful,” says Fontes.
O’Rielly cited a report from the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board, which found that a single child in Shelby County, Tenn., made 84 calls to 911 in a single night, nearly rendering the call center useless. The board did a three-month survey in 2008 and found that less than 2 percent of the calls made from phones without wireless service were true emergencies. “We have concluded that this continues to be one of the most critical operational issues facing 911 today,” wrote Lynn Questel, the board’s executive director. O’Rielly wants the commission to review current rules on phones that lack wireless service.
One thing O’Rielly hasn’t touched on are the ways in which accidental dialing has provided key evidence to law enforcement. In a single week last spring, two men butt-dialed 911 and then proceeded to locate a car to break into, discuss how to do it, and celebrate when they found drugs; in an unrelated case, a 911 operator listened in as a man threatened to kill someone who was shot minutes later. All three men were arrested.