Monday, February 25, 2013

Cellphones are Not Chew Toys and Other 911 Complaints

In the 23  years I have worked as a 911 operator the biggest change has been the huge increase in cellphone usage.  In 1990 when I started there were around 5 million cell phone users in the United States. Today over 203 million Americans have one. Many of them only have a cell phone.

As you can imagine this has made huge differences, both positive and negative, in the nature of my job,  Crimes and accidents are reported much more promptly, because the reporter doesn't have to find a land line phone to make the call.  The downside of this is that everyone who sees the accident or crime take place calls.  A car accident on the interstate can easily result in dozens of calls.  On the other end of the dozens of calls are typically 4-6 people answering the calls.  Some smaller departments have only one or two people call taking.  (So if you do call 911 and get a "Thanks, We have it" click, don't be offended.)

But at least these people are trying to report actual police, fire, or paramedic emergencies. A bigger factor, and bigger addition to our workload are accidental 911 calls.  The two biggest menaces are pocket dials and little kids.

Pocket dialers (also known among over tasked dispatchers as "Butt Dialers" ) generally of course have no clue what they are doing. This can frequently be seen by the nature of the calls we overhear.  I cannot tell you how many domestic fights and drug deals I have eavesdropped on.  My favorite though are the pedestrian dialers--people who are walking with their cell phones in their pocket.  As I have said before, the sound is frequently similar to that of people walking through crunchy fall leaves, if you had a microphone right in the middle of the leaves, and are listening on highly sensitive headphones to the resulting noises.

But perhaps the most time consuming unintentional  calls are the ones from small children. We often take calls from young children in the middle of emergency situations.  Frequently they are actually far calmer and more accurate than their adult counterparts.  But these children have learned about calling 911 and have learned when and how to do it.  Its their younger (sometimes much younger) brothers and sisters who drive us crazy some days.

Not a day goes by at work that I don't take at least one, and usually more, calls from a child that is too young to talk, let alone use a phone.  Sometimes the baby babbles in my ear. Other times they say hi over and over. Often we try to get them to take the phone to an adult, which often results in a conversation like this.

Me: Take the phone to Mommy.
Baby: Mommy phone.
Mom: Oh isn't that cute, he thinks he making phone calls.

Understand it's not the child who annoys us, its the clueless adult.

Sometimes we get an adult when we call back, who usually laughs and says "That was my baby, playing with the phone."  There is usually a note of pride in the parental voice at their child's "accomplishment".

Sometimes we are told that the phone was an old one, or one that didn't have any minutes on it, so it had been given to the child to play with.  Actually, however, the FCC requires all working cell phones (and landlines with a dial tone)to be able to call 911, regardless of available service.

Frequently things are made even easier for the pre-verbal caller because someone has programmed 911 into speed dial.  This never makes sense to  me. Is punching 9-1-1 into the phone such an arduous task that people must save yourself two extra button punches?  Are they afraid they will forget the number  in an emergency?

But there is an even bigger question that I muse upon frequently, while listening to the prattle of  these small ones.  Why the heck does this kid have access to a cell phone in the first place?

When my kids were little we didn't have a cell phone, but I kept the dialer phones high out of reach.  This was partly because I didn't want the embarrassment at work of a child of mine calling 911. I never would have heard the end of it at work. But it was also because I didn't think it was a safe thing to play with.  It wasn't a toy.  The kids did have toy phones, just as they had toy keys and toy remote controls. This was true when I was young also.  We weren't allowed to play with the house's phone, radio, stereo,TV dials and so forth. They were too valuable to let small kids handle.  Has technology become so inexpensive a disposable that nothing is to be kept out of reach of children? I don't understand why people would allow a child to play with an often expensive cellphone when a toy version can be picked up at any store for less than ten dollars.  It isn't just the accidental dialing issue.  Some phones are small enough to be choking hazards. Even if the phone isn't small enough the battery often is. Battery swallowing is frequent cause of both choking and poisoning in small children.

This is not a chew toy
keep out of reach of children 

No Cell Phones Allowed clipart


By the way, the  9-1-1 operator's life is not about to get any easier either.  The next phase of 9-1-1 will allow texting of messages and photos.  I can't wait to see what kind of pictures will be coming our way.

Thank you for reading this public service announcement.  We now would like to return you to your regularly scheduled blog reading. We  particularly recommend the "I Don't Like Mondays" Blog hop at Mod Mom Beyond IndieDom. Check it out.


  1. orry, but I have to laugh about this because I totally believe this can drive people in your position crazy. I feel for you. Honestly. And no, I'm not guilty of this. I do not own one of these (a little stubborn thing of mine). And you're right - telephones were a big 'no-no' when I was a kid. Strange how things like that change.

    1. If we don't laugh about these things we'll cry, you know. I do find the shift in what we let kids handle at an early age to be interesting. I never had a cell phone until we went on vacation for a week without kids, and relatives needed to be able to reach us. Now I use it mostly to text friends and my kids. But I have a love/hate relationship with them because of all the workplace hassle. I totally understand anyone who chooses not to have one.

  2. It occurred to me that I never told you about the time we were at our doctor's house with some other neighbors (we live in the same town) and the kids were all playing together in the basement. M1 was about 5. They had a pink phone down there that looked like a toy. Since the kids had been learning about 911 in school, M1 picked up the phone and called it, thinking he was playing. I don't know why he wasn't tipped off when he got actual voices on the other end and I don't know what he told them. All I know is that the cops showed up and we had to explain to our doctor that our kid had called them. Awkward. We just told them that it's not a party until the musicians' kid gets the cops to show up.

    1. Thats an great story Linda. It happens all the time, which is why I wrote this. I have often gone out on the Public Education presentations that teach kids about when and how to call 911. We have a simulator phone that lets kids practice calling 911. Of course we tell the kids to call if they get into any kind of trouble. One time a little boy got punished at home and was sent to his room. He decided that since he was "in trouble" he should call 911. Naturally his mom had a long chat with the cops, and then a long chat with her kids. On the other hand lives have been saved by kids knowing how to call. All the frustration is a fair trade off in the end.