NC 911 centers get thousands of accidental calls as smartphones add to problem

North Carolina news

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) – 911 centers are receiving thousands of calls each year for non-emergencies and dispatchers say you can easily help put an end to the problem.

Within the past five years, dispatchers say they’ve seen a noticeable increase in accidental 911 calls. It has been an issue since phones were invented, but dispatchers say smartphones and smartwatches have added to call volume.

The Union County 911 center handled more than 200,000 calls in 2020. More than 10% of those calls weren’t for emergencies at all.

“We do get accidental calls daily and to the tune of about 25,000 a year or more,” said Union County Emergency Communications Director, Vicki Callicutt.

In fact, the number of accidental 911 calls is increasing with more than 27,000 in 2020. This year Union County is already on the same pace with more than 7,000 already in 2021.

“I am not surprised by it at all. That seems about right to me,” said 911 dispatcher and supervisor, Jessica Husky.

The majority of calls are coming from cellphones with the emergency 911 feature. WJZY was allowed to listen to several recordings of 911 calls where someone called by accident using a smartphone or smartwatch feature.

With smart watches, a quick tap is all that’s needed to make an emergency call.

DISPATCHER: “Hi this is the Union County 911 Center is everything ok?”

CALLER: “Yes. I am sorry. I was trying to turn the volume down on my phone and I hit the wrong button.”

DISPATCHER: “911?”

CALLER: “HI!”

DISPATCHER: “Hello?”

CALLER: “Hello I am sorry. My daughter called I am so sorry.”

DISPATCHER: “You sure everything is ok ma’am?”

CALLER: “Yes she called from my watch. I am sorry.”

“So I’ve talked to people on mountain bikes, on trails, who are like I didn’t call you? Yes you did,” said Callicutt.

No matter the call that comes in, each and every one has to be returned. Dispatchers can never assume a hang-up means everything is OK.

In Union County, dispatchers estimated about 80 percent of callers just hang up.

“The biggest thing for me is how time-consuming it is. We have certain questions we ask on every single 911 hang up and if people are frustrated or not wanting to give you the answers or if they hang up and we have to call them back, that’s time we could be processing another actual emergency call,” said Husky.

If dispatchers are forced to call back they use a non-emergency number. Some people still don’t answer, so police or a sheriff’s deputy will often be dispatched.

“GPS runs the world right? We are very fortunate to receive that and every year we have seen improvements on the accuracy in the location information. Typically with larger carriers we are within 20 feet of you,” said Callicutt.

911 leaders say smart phone and smart watch 911 features have saved lives in the past and simple measures are in place to ensure the feature is used only during an emergency.

“It has the ability to be a problem. We don’t get to pick time of day or what our call volume is at any given time, but we tend to see that influx when we are at our busiest when more people are moving around and things are going on. My advice, or request to the public, is be mindful of it and lock your screen if you’re going to put it in your back pocket,” said Callicutt.

Dispatchers say if you accidentally call 911, you haven’t broken any laws and you won’t be in any trouble. They will simply ask a few questions before getting you off the line.

In Union County callers will never get a busy signal if the 911 center is handling multiple calls at once. Mecklenburg and Cabarrus County 911 centers are used as overflow.

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