The man who answered the phone at the Missoula County Courthouse thought it was odd that this caller was asking for the number of the 911 Center, which is in the Courthouse’s basement. “Did you try 911?” he asked. No, because there was no emergency, just a question: How many accidentally-bumped cell phone calls does the 911 Center receive each day?
Anywhere from 50 to 80, says the Center’s Manager Debbie Ogden. “In a 24-hour period, we can have that easy.” Nationally, the FCC has estimated that 25 to 70 percent of calls to Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) are unintentional wireless calls. Ogden says the Missoula 911 Center receives 400 to 600 legitimate calls per day (5p.m. to 3 a.m. is the busiest time), “but we can have as many calls again where they were bumped cell phones, or referred to other agencies, or they called by mistake.”
“It is frustrating to say the least,” reads the 911 Center’s website, “to hear a Grizzly Football Game or a casual conversation coming through a bumped cell phone.” But the calls are more than annoying; they’re a safety hazard.
911 Center dispatchers have to stay on a line long enough to determine if the call is accidental or not, which generally takes five to 15 seconds—not the end of the world if you’re in line for a latte, but potentially life-threatening if someone else is blocked from getting through with a real emergency. The Center has 12 lines.
Ogden and the 24 other full-time 911 Center employees, who work 10-hour shifts, urge cell-phone users not to program 911 into their phones, and to keep their keypads locked. (Two of those employees, shift leader Katie Dettmann and training coordinator Roxanna McGinnis, recently won Montana Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials awards for their dispatching work.)
Accidental calls aside, cell phones have increased the volume of purposeful calls the Center receives as well: “For example,” says Ogden, “there’s a vehicle accident at Third and Russell. The first call is a cell phone caller, and we get a good deal of the information we need…but then we get 10 more calls on that same incident. It’s not unusual at all to get 10 to 20 subsequent calls on the really visible [accidents] because of cell phones.
“On the one hand, cell phones are great,” she says. “They save a lot of time, and they’ve contributed to life-saving efforts.” But on the other hand, “they can be bothersome… because they do tie up so many of our efforts here.”