Report: Butt Dials Are Clogging The 9-1-1 System

What’s an emergency management department to do when 9-1-1 calls are spiking, but there aren’t enough workers to cover all those calls? San Francisco turned to researchers in an effort to understand a recent surge in emergency calls, which has been putting a strain on its emergency resources, and found that butts are to blame. Specifically, when someone’s backside accidentally makes a 9-1-1 call.

While it’s good for personal safety that mobile phones can call 9-1-1 without being unlocked, it’s creating a headache for call centers: San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management turned to Google to help identify what’s been going on, after call volumes increased 28% between 2011 and 2014, reports the BBC. Though calls were up, staffing levels remained the same, forcing workers to put in overtime.

Google published a report noting that butt-dialing is severely taxing call handlers, as it takes time to answer those phone calls, then figure out if it was a mistake or someone calling with a real emergency who can’t speak, for whatever reason. Each and every butt-dial involves follow-up, which took on average, a minute and 14 seconds to do.

In the case of the San Francisco 9-1-1 center, 80% of workers said in a survey that tracking down those calls was a time-consuming part of their already busy day, with 39% saying it’s the single biggest “pain point” in the job.

This research was only focused on San Francisco, but butt-dials are a widespread issue for emergency management departments across the country. The Federal Communications Commission estimated that in New York City, butt-dials made up 50% of all incoming calls from mobile phones.

“If my anecdotal experiences are remotely accurate,” FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly wrote last year in a blog post, “it would mean that approximately 84 million 911 calls a year are pocket-dials. “This is a huge waste of resources, raises the cost of providing 911 services, depletes morale, and increases the risk that legitimate 911 calls – and first responders — will be delayed.”

The Google team discussed the research at the Code for America summit, as part of a larger conversation about software development and how technology can better help services we all use every day.

“In order to make good decisions, you need information, and this is an important step,” the Google team said.

‘Butt dials’ – a strain on US emergency systems [BBC]