301.519.9237 exdirector@nesaus.org
Accidental 9-1-1 calls from smart phones typically go up during large events like races at  Saratoga Race Course or concerts.

10.6.21 – Times Union –Rick Karlin

But cops say features are worth having, despite occasional errors

Smart phone users accidentally dialing someone by mistake is an established part of life in our hyper-connected culture.

Sometimes, though, those butt-dials end up summoning the police or the county dispatch services.

And whenever a iPhone, Android or even Apple Watch hits the market, dispatchers across the country know they’ll be receiving a new rash of these accidental 911 calls.

“I think it’s gotten worse as more technology comes out,” remarked Steven Gordon, director of emergency communications for the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office, which handles 911 calls for most of the county’s police and fire services.

“I know about the issue,” agreed Bethlehem Police Commander Adam Hornick, who said the topic comes up in meetings among police and emergency workers. It may be a current topic due to Apple’s recently released iPhone 13.

Often known as 911 hangup calls, they are the result of emergency safety features built in to most smart phones and other devices. It a user holds down the volume and on/off button on some iPhones, for example, it will call 911.

The features can be disabled, but police don’t necessarily advise that. Despite the hassle of answering a hangup call, Gordon says they’d rather people have a quick and easy way to get 911 when they actually need it.

“It’s not a problem, but it is something that we do have to plan for,” said Gordon.

Last year, he said county dispatchers fielded about 100,000 emergency 911 calls, including 10,819 hangups. They don’t keep track, though, of how many are accidentally triggered by pushing a device’s emergency button or some other user error.

“Some of those folks are still on the phone when our telecommunicators answer,”  said Guilderland’s Deputy Chief Curtis Cox. Like other departments, they assume such calls are real emergencies until they find out otherwise. That’s usually accomplished by keeping people on the phone or calling back, although not everyone answers. If that’s the case, they go to the spot where the call originated.

Saratoga County dispatchers know there is a rhythm to such calls as well. They get more during concerts at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and when the horse racing season is on. People may be shooting videos, taking recordings and accidentally hit the wrong buttons, Gordon said.

His best advice is to familiarize yourself with the features of their new smart phone, just as people should (but don’t always bother to) read the owner’s manual for new cars, lawnmowers of microwaves.

No one expects the volume of these calls to drop anytime soon, especially as the technology includes more and more features. In addition to butt or pocket dialing, some Apple watches have fall detectors, which can call 911 if the wearer has taken a hard fall. They alert the user that 911 is being called first, though.

Police departments near ski resorts or parks where there are hikers have reported such calls, said April Heinze, the 911 and public safety answering point director for the National Emergency Number Association, which follows issues surrounding such calls. Like Gordon and others, her group strongly urges people to familiarize themselves with their new smartphones or other devices. “Understand how it works,” she said.

Gordon believes it’s a matter of time before smart glasses catch on, and when they do, they’ll be more accidental 911 calls

Those, however, might be called head dials or hat dials.