Meadville Tribune

Local News

November 2, 2012

Wrong number: Misused 911 calls are easy to trace

MEADVILLE — The two kids were laughing as they misused a cell phone on their school bus — having a great time as they repeatedly dialed the 911 emergency service number and screaming obscenities at whichever 911 operator who would answer.

They didn’t find it as funny when Pennsylvania State Police and the Maplewood Elementary School principal were waiting for them when the bus arrived a short time later at the school, according to Kevin Nicholson, director of the Crawford County 911 Center, the centralized dispatching center for emergency police, fire and ambulance services.

In another instance, an elementary student called after normal school hours to say he was in his school’s science room and said the room was on fire, Nicholson said. When the call was traced back and determined to be a prank, the child and child’s mother went before Magisterial District Judge Amy Nicols of Titusville to discuss the matter, Nicholson said.

The lesson is simple: Misuse a cellphone and you’re going to get caught — quickly, in most cases.

That’s why prank calls like the above students made to Crawford County’s 911 emergency phone system are practically nil these days. The calls are easy to trace thanks to improvements in telecommunication technology in the last 20 years, Nicholson said.

A 911 dispatcher sees the phone number of the device making the call, as well as the phone’s location, he said. Though the technology wasn’t designed to catch people misuing the 911 system, it’s a benefit since it “allows us to call people back and locate people if they’re in need of help,” Nicholson said.

The students who made the prank calls weren’t prosecuted due to their young ages, Nicholson said, but they learned their lesson.

Nicholson also gives high praise to the parents of the kids involved and how they reacted when informed of what their children had done.

“The parents were extremely responsible,” said Nicholson. “The parents made (the kids) do community service for making that call,” Nicholson said of the obscenity call.

The student who made the prank fire call had to visit the 911 Center to see the operation, then had to write apology letters, Nicholson said.

While prank calls aren’t a problem for the Crawford County 911 Center, unintentional calls can happen during the 50 to 100 calls that come in during an eight-hour shift, said Nicholson. The total number of calls to 911 will vary depending on factors like time of day, weather and road conditions, he said.

Though estimated by the county at less than 20 percent of all 911 calls, unintended calls can become a problem when there is a real emergency, Nicholson said. The county has no firm figure on unintentional 911 calls.

“Dispatchers still have to answer them, and it takes time away from any real emergency,” Nicholson said of unintentional 911 calls.

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