John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Getting rid of accidental emergency calls could save San Francisco more than $2 million yearly, says an official.
Take a moment to reach back and give your backside a righteous thwack. Don’t worry—it (or at least one of its friends) probably deserves the smack, as butt-dialing is taking up an annoyingly large amount of 9-1-1 dispatchers’ time.
That’s according to a research paper from Google’s “9-1-1 Team,” whose analysis of computer-aided dispatch calls shows false cries for help are a scourge in San Francisco. The researchers, working with the Department of Emergency Management and the city’s public-private Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, discovered that the two most common code calls from the past couple of years were “miscellaneous” and “unknown”—classifications that likely included a literal butt-load of dials.
Based on Google’s shadowing of dispatchers over three days, it’s possible as much as 20 percent of emergency calls in San Francisco are accidents. “We had heard from our 9-1-1 dispatchers for a while they were getting a lot of hangup calls,” says Francis Zamora, an emergency-management spokesman. “This paper confirmed a lot of our suspicions.”
Such calls are a problem because dispatchers don’t know if there’s a real emergency, and must ring back a couple times and leave a voice message. It’s a frustrating process, to believe a survey Google conducted with a group of city dispatchers. Some 80 percent of them said calling back wireless users was a “time-consuming aspect” of their jobs, and nearly 40 percent said it was the “largest pain point” in their work flow.
Worse, handling accidental calls presumably eats up time the dispatchers could be using to respond to actual crime and accidents. And time costs money, says emergency-management deputy director Robert Smuts.
“The Google report identified a number of causes behind our increase in call volume, but if it were possible to get rid of all accidental dials we would easily save north of $2 million per year in San Francisco alone,” he emails. “This challenge is facing all 9-1-1 centers in this country, so you can imagine the total impact.”
The rise of unintended calls can be partly ascribed to growing smartphone usage. The Pew Research Center reports almost two-thirds of U.S. adults now own such devices, which can often make emergency calls without being unlocked. Landlines are also responsible for a big chunk of accidental dials, but dispatchers can take care of those much quicker, writes the Google team:
As noted above, accidental wireless calls take more time to address, on average, than wireline calls. This is due to the fact that wireless accidental dials mostly result from individuals accidentally dialing 9-1-1 from their cell/smart phones. When the dispatcher receives these calls, they only hear an open line and they must call back the number to leave a voicemail. However, most accidental dials from wireline phones come from payphones or building switchboards. Because dispatchers are unable to call back these phone sources, a smaller percentage of calls require the dispatcher to call back which reduces the length of the process.
Though “butt-dialing” is a great phrase, it’s important to note other human parts and activities share some of the blame. Smuts, who heads up San Francisco’s Division of Emergency Communications, breaks it down:
Accidental dials have been a problem for a long time—dialing “9” to get an outside line on a landline system, and then “1” before an area code but pressing it twice by accident has led to misdials for a long time (also dialing “11” for a country code instead of “011” after dialing “9”). What has led to a significant increase recently is the type of cell phones that are common now. It is easy to accidentally hit the “emergency” button on the lock screen on a touch-screen phone, and the fact that all phones are required to be able to reach 9-1-1 even when they are off contract (often after a parent gets an upgrade, they might let his/her kid play with the old phone—if the phone still has a charge, it can reach 9-1-1).
One way to help dispatchers manage the flood of useless dials would be to automate the call-back system, so butt-typers would get a text or prerecorded message alerting them to the possible mistake. “Indiana and a few other places have pioneered this approach,” Smuts says, “and San Francisco should be able to follow after we finish installing our new phone system a little less than a year from now.”