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Pocket dials affecting 9-1-1 calls

Posted on September 29, 2016 by Vauxhall Advance

By Nikki Jamieson
Vauxhall Advance

Pocket dialling has become a common occurrence since the advent of cell phones. As their popularity rose, so did the number of calls consisting of nondescript chatter and background noise to friends, family, random strangers or, in some cases, 9-1-1.

According to Cst. Melanie Schefter of the Taber/Vauxhall RCMP, speaking during the Municipal District of Taber council’s regular Sept. 27 meeting, a large number of 9-1-1 hangups that the department had received over the summer were the result of pocket dialling.

“We get so many of those,” said Schefter. “I can think of one day where I probably got three from the same number, probably within a two hour span. We have go patrol, and then we have to write a file up.”

During the months of July and August, there was a total of 55 9-1-1 hangup calls that came is to the detachment. Every time a call comes in, the RCMP officers have to patrol the area where the call originated, even if there were no signs of distress in the call, to look for the source in case there was an emergency, following which a report will be written up.

Ultimately, this diverts manpower from other duties for what is essentially a false alarm.

While new features, such as locks, have been added to cell phones to help prevent pocket dialling over the years, for safety purposes you can still access the emergency line even when it is locked. Even if a phone is deactivated, you can still call 9-1-1.

“There were 31 9-1-1 hangups (in July), and 16 of those were 9-1-1 prefix, which we can’t call back, so those are deactivated phones,” said Schefter. “You can call from a deactivated phone, but there is no way for us to figure out who owns that.”

As a deactivated phone will have a phone number showing up like 911-XXX-XXX, operators would not be able to tell who the owner, original or otherwise, of the phone is.

While a cell phone’s GPS can connect with satellites and can relay location information, or its signal can bounce from cell towers, depending on your surroundings, your location information can be off by hundreds of metres. Additional information, such as what floor of the building you are on, is not included.

“We don’t get much as far as location. We’ll get a general idea, because they can tell us what tower the signal came from, but the radius could be 250 metres from that area,” said Schefter, adding that older phones do not connect to GPS, and there is a lot of those still being used.

“We pursued this, probably 10 years ago now, to try to make some changes, and they assured us that the new phones would be better,” said Brian Brewin, reeve for the M.D. “Some of the old phones would actually pocket dial 9-1-1 if you left it in your pocket, you didn’t have to unlock it. The numbers aren’t going down.”

Another aspect of the problem is older cell phones being used as toys. While they may be deactivated, a child can still call 9-1-1 on the old phone by accident.

“I think that’s what we’re hearing a lot of, is children playing in the background,” said Schefter. “You can tell there’s not really an emergency, theres no screaming or signs of distress or anything like that, but you can hear the kids playing in the background.”

According to the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, several major urban centres in Canada have reported that the majority of their 9-1-1 calls came from cell phones, and Canada is home to the second most 4G/LTE networks in the world.

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