Accidental ‘pocket calls’ hang up emergency responders

Of the thousands of abandoned 911 calls that come in to Victoria police and Vancouver Island RCMP’s call centres in a year, more than half can be traced to cellphones

From a public safety standpoint, it’s the worst kind of pocket dial – one that reaches 911.

Of the thousands of abandoned 911 calls that come in to Victoria police and Vancouver Island RCMP’s call centres in a year, more than half can be traced to cellphones, as they shuffle around in pockets, purses and backpacks, unwitting;ly wreaking havoc among emergency personnel

It’s a problem that’s highly labour-intensive, 911 officials and police say.

“Police officers are taken off the road for hours each day just to respond and verify abandoned calls,” said Steve Cox, manager of the RCMP’s Operations Communications Centre in Courtenay. “That precious time could be spent on investigating more serious offences and responding to real emergencies.”

At the Victoria communication centre, 5,273 calls to 911 were abandoned last year, out of 43,791 calls. Islandwide, the RCMP communication centres received 162,945 calls, of which 14,825 were abandoned.

When calls are abandoned, the number is called back to verify whether there is an emergency.

If the caller can’t be reached, a police officer is dispatched to locate the caller. To do so, the cellphone service provider must be contacted to obtain the caller’s information and the phone’s GPS co-ordinates can sometimes be tracked.

“In (a) span of four months in the first quarter of this year, we calculated that just between 96 and 130 hours were spent by operators in locating and verifying abandoned calls. That time is exponentially longer for police officers on the road to follow up on abandoned calls,” Cox said.

To avoid the problem, police say people should keep their cellphones out of their pockets and lock the keypad. Do not program 911 into your speed dial list.

Const. Mike Russell with Victoria police said callers shouldn’t hang up if 911 is called, even by accident.

“911 is reserved for emergencies and should only be called for situations involving a crime in progress, an imminent threat to life, bodily injury, or major property damage or loss,” Russell said.

“However, if you misdial 911, please don’t hang up. Remain on the line and explain your error.”

ecardone@vicnews.com