Cellphone use contributing to upward trend in 911 calls

Wednesday, February 1, 2012 | 8:25 p.m. CST; updated 9:50 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 1, 2012

COLUMBIA — Blame it on "butt dials."

Boone County experienced an increase in the number of 911 calls for the fourth consecutive year, according to data collected by Public Safety Joint Communications. And cellphone use — both intended and accidental — is a primary cause.

Zim Schwartze, director of Columbia/Boone County Public Safety Joint Communications and Office of Emergency Management, cites not only a growing population as a cause but also the increased prevalence of cellphone use. Instead of one person reporting a car accident from a pay phone, five or six people can now report the same accident from their cellphones, she said.

As a result of this phenomenon, operators spend more time per call trying to figure out if the different callers are reporting the same accident or separate ones. Operators need this information to help agencies, such as the Columbia Police Department, determine how many responders should be sent out and where they are needed.

"It really is a struggle trying to figure out what a person is calling about when we have numerous calls about the same incident," Schwartze said. "It is a burden for us."

Another complication of increased cellphone use is "pocket dialing," which is an accidental call made by a cellphone stored out of sight, such as in a pocket or purse.

"The standard across the country is that dispatch centers do not have a 'no-send' policy," Schwartze said.

In the case of pocket dials, colloquially known as "butt dials," this means that operators treat the call as an emergency, as they do with all other calls. They dispatch the call to the appropriate agency, which decides whether to send assistance. If there is no response on the line, as is the case with pocket dials, someone is sent to investigate.

Since every call is treated the same way, the exact number of 911 calls resulting from pocket dials is unknown. However, Schwartze said she believes that they were more common two or three years ago, when people were less familiar with their mobile devices. Now, people are more knowledgeable and apt to take precautions, such as protective covers and password locks.

Schwartze said she doesn't want to discourage people from calling 911 but does encourage discretion in deciding if a situation is an emergency. If a crime is not in progress, there is no danger of immediate harm and there is not an emergency medical condition, Schwartze recommends calling the non-emergency number, 442-6131.

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