Politics & Government

Misdialed 911 calls from cellphones waste taxpayers’ money

A Sedgwick County 911 operator works in Wichita’s downtown public safety building.
A Sedgwick County 911 operator works in Wichita’s downtown public safety building. File photo

People talk about how they want government to operate more efficiently, but some residents are dialing away tax dollars.

Misdialed 911 calls from cellphones wasted an estimated 3,739 hours of dispatchers’ time last year in Sedgwick County.

The county’s 911 system took 89,726 misdialed calls in 2014, up from 80,517 in 2013 and 77,456 in 2012. The time that emergency phone operators spent trying to return calls to cellphones also went up, from 3,228 hours in 2012 to 3,355 hours in 2013.

“That’s a lot of time wasted,” said Elora Randleas, deputy director of the county’s 911 system.

What’s the cost of the problem?

Well, there’s a monetary one, and there’s another that’s harder to measure.

The pay for a dispatcher trainee is $14.05 per hour. Using that wage – not including benefits – the 3,739 wasted hours last year cost Sedgwick County taxpayers $52,532.95, Randleas estimated.

Dispatchers with years on the job are paid more, of course.

“And forgive me while I hop on my soap box a moment, but the cost goes even further than that,” Randleas wrote in an e-mail. “For example, if I’m calling in because I am having a heart attack and it takes longer for my call to get answered because the caller that is currently clogging up the line is a misdialed cell phone, then what is the cost in my life as my condition further deteriorates and I do more damage to my heart and my health? Do I have a longer recovery period? Does it cost more for my ER trip because they have to provide more services?

“I know that seems like one of those ‘well, that escalated quickly’ situations, but it really can snowball, and these misdialed cell phones really do cost the community in several ways.”

To try to reverse the upward trend, the 911 department is talking to community groups, church groups, neighborhood groups – “whoever will have us,” Randleas said. The county started a public education campaign last summer.

Unfortunately, Randleas thinks that a spike in errant calls after the campaign started may have been people testing their phones to see how easy it is to call 911 by accident. Her plea? Don’t do that.

Erroneous calls to 911 from cellphones occur in a few ways:

▪ People’s cellphones dial 911 while being jostled in purses, in pockets, etc.

▪ Cellphone owners are not properly “locking” their phones with a password.

▪ Parents are letting their children play with cellphones. An old phone can still call 911 if its battery hasn’t been removed and the phone still has power.

“Phones can be a great pacifier for kids, and I’ve been guilty of that myself, but they can get places very quickly on your phone,” Randleas said. “Remind them it’s not a toy. It is a tool for emergencies.”

The problem is worldwide.

“As an industry, we just now all started see it come to a bubble. We’ve got this issue that thus far had been manageable, and how do we manage it?” Randleas said.

The National Emergency Number Association does not have national statistics on the number of misdialed emergency calls. But communications director Chris Nussman said that as the number of cellphone owners has grown, so, too, has the number of bad calls to 911.

Nussman and Ty Wooten, education and public safety answer point operations director, said they were not aware of any 911 centers fining people for misdialed calls. But Wooten said statutes in some places criminalize the misuse of the 911 system.

When someone calls 911 by accident and hangs up, the dispatcher must take the time to call the number back to check whether there is an emergency, Randleas said.

People should not hang up if they accidentally call 911.

“It’s much easier to just finish the call,” Wooten said. “Just say, ‘I am sorry. I called 911, but I didn’t mean to.’ ”

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SGCountyDeb.

The 411 on 911

Misdialed 911 calls from cellphones mean wasted time for dispatchers. Here’s a breakdown of the problem in Sedgwick County:

2014: Dispatchers answered 89,726 misdialed calls from cellphones, which wasted 3,739 hours.

2013: Dispatchers answered 80,517 misdialed calls from cellphones, which wasted 3,355 hours.

2012: Dispatchers answered 77,456 misdialed calls from cellphones, which wasted 3,228 hours.

Source: Sedgwick County

Don’t call 911 by accident

▪ Lock your cellphone with a password.

▪ Don’t let your children play with your cellphone. If you give them an old phone, remove the battery first.

▪ What should you do if you’ve accidentally called 911? Don’t hang up. Stay on the line and apologize.

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