Officials alarmed by the 38,000 accidental calls received last year

Have you ever received a call on your cellphone only to hear background noise? It’s known as a pocket dial: accidentally dialing someone without knowing it.

While most people laugh off the act and vow to lock their phone, one recipient in the city doesn’t find the accidental dials all that funny – the 911 operators.

“We get about 300-400 erroneous 911 calls everyday, so obviously that takes up a huge amount of resources,” said Nina Vaughan, commander of Public Safety Communications.

“Each call has to be processed to determine if there’s an emergency. We call the cellphone back, and we’ve actually started to provide voicemails telling the person they dialed 911 and to please contact their service provider to lock their phone,” Vaughan said.

On average, the city receives about 38,000 pocket dials a year. That’s roughly 38,000 minutes a 911 operator wastes listening to the call, hanging up, and calling the person back.

The city received 38,000 pocket dials last year prompting a new summer campaign to lower those numbers.
Photo by: Geoff Picketts

Last fall the city ran a campaign to make people aware of the number of pocket dials received by 911 operators, but unfortunately did not see a decline in numbers.

“I don’t think it resonates with people, the amount of wasted tax dollars associated with it. They just think ‘whoops’ and kind of go on,” Vaughan said. “So we tried to make people aware of the scope of the problem and what they could do to help.”

Although the numbers didn’t decline, Vaughan said that citizens did remember the campaign and a large number of people surveyed recalled seeing advertisements on buses or billboards throughout the city.

The campaign wasn’t just to reduce the number of calls but to monitor the effects such calls have on receiving operators.

Roy Nelson, a process procedure and reporting analyst for Public Safety Communications, conducted a survey in November to see just how much a pocket dial can impact 911 operators.

“We looked at false phone calls and quite a large portion of them were because of unknown reasons,” Nelson said.

From the survey Roy conducted, it was concluded that 23 per cent of phone calls received by 911 operators were a result of pocket dialing.

 “Any reduction would be a success. I’m aiming for zero because our operators are better off helping the people who need it.”
— Nina Vaughn,
Public Safety Communication

“The operators get very upset by this because it means that roughly a quarter of the time that they pick up the phone, it’s not a real call. They find this demoralizes them, because a quarter of their time is spent doing unimportant work,” Nelson said.

Throughout the last six months, surveys have shown that the number of dead cells being used has risen– along with the number of irresponsible calls from youth who have cellphones.

“As a user, you should know how to use your phone properly,” Nelson said. “Find out if there’s a way to disable the emergency calling function, or better yet contact your service provider to see if the function can be changed.”

Calgary isn’t the only city plagued with 911 pocket dials. It seems Canadians in general are forgetting to lock their phone before putting it away.

In eastern Canada, Toronto police started the “Lock it before you pocket” public service program to prevent repeating the nearly 107,000 pocket dials they received in 2011. The campaign website said the program was created in response to a steep increase in unintended calls from mobile devices which represents a threat to public safety and affects police resources that are already stretched to the limit.

Calgary is currently working to improve and implement a new pocket dialing campaign that is expected to be launched in the summer. The second campaign will take ideas learned from the less than successful first run. One of these lessons is aimed at informing citizens of what to do to prevent pocket dialing in the future.

“What we didn’t do successfully and plan to do in the future is to offer solutions to prevent it,” Vaughan said. “Any reduction would be a success. I’m aiming for zero because our operators are better off helping the people who need it.”

aowen@cjournal.ca