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.
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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.