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Butt Dials Blamed for a Spike in 911 Calls

Reports put accidental pocket dials at 30 to 50 percent of mobile emergency calls

(Frederic Cirou/PhotoAlto/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

San Francisco's Department of Emergency Management has been struggling to keep up with the recent torrent of 911 calls. But the issue wasn’t just a surge in crime or accidents, it was at least in part due to 'butt dials' or inadvertent cell phone calls, according to a new report.

While the problem seems chuckle-worthy, it’s a headache for San Francisco’s emergency operators, Dave Lee reports for BBC News. Emergency calls increased by 28 percent from 2011 to 2014. And since all 911 calls require follow-up, pocket dials or butt dials present a challenge.

Mobile phones must have the ability to make emergency calls without being unlocked, but operators have to figure out where the call is coming from, not always an easy task with mobile phones. Even worse, every second operators spend chasing errant butt dials increases the wait for callers with real emergencies.

To figure out what was causing the 911 call surge, the San Francisco mayor’s office called in a team of Google engineers to help. (Lee reports that the company has a program promoting employees to tackle projects for social good.) Their report pinned the number of accidental butt dials at 30 percent of the total mobile calls. 

The butt dial plague extends beyond San Francisco. Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, writing for the official Federal Communications Commission blog, notes that nearly 70 percent of emergency calls in New York City are made on mobile phones and around 50 percent of that total is from butt dialing. Oregon has similar problems, according to O'Rielly, with accidental calls making up about 30 percent of the total mobile 911 traffic.

"This is a huge waste of resources, raises the cost of providing 911 services, depletes [emergency operators'] morale, and increases the risk that legitimate 911 calls—and first responders—will be delayed," he adds. 

The Oregon county agency’s solution was to verify intentional calls with a service that "listens" for a voice or records when the caller presses a number. In the U.K., a similar system asks callers to press "55" if they are there, Lee reports. But when a 17-year-old girl was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 2003, the automated system deemed her call an accident and cut her off.

The new report for San Francisco suggests automating callbacks for callers that hang up or appear unintentional, using a bot to leave voicemail or send a text message. The report also suggests that accidental calls should be tracked.

Ultimately, the entire system needs an overhaul, and more data on the problem may eventually help experts figure out how to deal with the scourge of butt dials. 

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