Accidental 911 calls a huge drain on resources

Approximately 20 per cent of the over 1 million calls to 911 aren’t because of emergencies

911 dispatchers in B.C. field over one million calls per year, approximately 20 per cent of which are categorized as abandoned, meaning police must be dispatched to unknown situations, many of which are not emergencies.

In the first quarter of this year alone – from January 1 to the end of March – there were 2,300 abandoned calls to 911 just within the Campbell River region.

Approximately 20 per cent of 911 calls fall into this category – and there are over a million calls per year to 911, so about 50,000 times per year, province-wide, RCMP are dispatched to attend a scene not knowing what they’re going into, often arriving to find there’s no emergency at all.

“It could be something like pocket dialing, or someone having pre-programmed their phone with 911 and they accidentally push it or their child pushes it and then the phone gets hung up before the dispatcher can come on and determine whether it’s an accidental call or a real emergency,” says president of North Island 911 Corporation Larry Samson.

Whenever a call is abandoned, Samson says, dispatchers have to notify the RCMP and have them attend the location of the call. After all, they can’t know whether it’s someone whose call was interrupted and cut off by an attacker or intruder or whether it was an accidental call from someone’s purse or pocket, so they have to err on the side of caution.

“RCMP have to be dispatched to ensure that the person on the other end of the line when a call comes in is, in fact, safe and not being threatened in any way,” Samson says. “So it definitely ties up RCMP resources, as well as the dispatcher’s time. As you can imagine, when they’re dealing with over one million calls a year, that’s a lot of call volume to have upwards of 20 per cent of it be in question like that. It makes their job very difficult.”

And that increased difficulty can increase even more when the call comes from mobile device. Trying to determine the location of a cell phone in order to dispatch the police to that location ties up even more emergency resources.

So North Island 911, in conjunction with E-Comm – the organization that fields all of the calls province-wide from the Lower Mainland – has launched an education campaign designed to conserve those wasted resources.

Part of the problem is that many cell phones have 911 automatically programmed into them – often the ability to place the call without even unlocking the screen.

“How many of us have given our phones to our kids to let them play a game on or whatever to keep them occupied while we’re driving, for example?” Samson asks. “And if that feature is enabled, it can very easily result in an accidental call. What we’re asking people to do is either disable that feature or at least make it so that it can’t be accidentally activated.”

The most important message of the campaign, however, is simply to not hang up. Most people’s first reaction when they hear someone talking on the other end of their phone when they didn’t purposely dial is to just end the call, which does more harm than good.

“Yes, there are a few precautions you can take to cut down on the number of accidental calls being made, but if it does happen, people need to know that it’s important for them to stay on the line,” Samson says. “Just let the dispatcher know that, yeah, you accidentally dialed or your child accidentally dialed or whatever the situation is, and the dispatcher, once they’re sure you’re safe, will end the call. They’re very professional and well-versed in these calls, and there’s no need to be embarrased or whatever. It happens all the time. They just want to know you’re safe.”