By Keith Gushard
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.
Oops, wrong button
The majority of unintended 911 calls are due to someone accidentally hitting the 911 call button on their cell phone or the cell phone being jostled in a pocket or purse, triggering 911, said Dave Amy, a dispatcher.
“We’ve listened to people walk down the street,” said Amy. “We try to get their attention by talking so they know.”
Other unintended calls may come from a toddler who has been given an old, unused cell phone to play with, but the phone still may dial 911 if the battery isn’t removed; or recycled cell phones given out for emergency use that have no phone numbers of their own and are pre-programmed only to dial 911.
“On those phones (the 911 pre-programmed ones), you can’t call the person back because you don’t have a phone number,” said Amy.
Prank 911 phone calls began to fall sharply in the 1990s as communication technology evolved, giving local 911 dispatchers the ability to see the telephone number of the call coming in to 911 and, later, the physical address location of the phone, Nicholson said.
As telephone communications switched more and more to mobile phones during the last decade, 911 technology changed as well, giving 911 dispatchers the ability not only to know what was the cell phone number making the call, but where that phone was located, Nicholson said.
Crawford County District Attorney Francis Schultz said he can’t recall having to prosecute a prank 911 call case during his 15 years in the district attorney’s office.
Schultz said his office would treat it as a serious matter with persons charged with either false alarms to agency of public safety, which carries up to five years in jail, or false reports to law enforcement, which carries a two-year jail sentence. The charges would depend on the circumstances of the case, he said.
If a prank 911 call were made during an actual emergency that diverts personnel away from the emergency, a person could face a third-degree felony that would carry a maximum of seven years in jail, he said.
Thankfully, the county has had relatively few problems with prank 911 calls, according to Nicholson.
“But if we get them and we catch someone, we would prosecute,” he said.
Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The Crawford County 911 Center receives an average of 50 to 100 calls during an eight-hour shift. The total number varies depending on factors like time of day, weather and road conditions, he said.
It’s estimated that less than 20 percent of all 911 calls are unintended, which still amounts to dozens of incorrectly dialed 911 calls a day.