A texTTY solution?
Though there’s no cut-and-dried solution, one local telecommunications company says it may have an answer to the question of how to curb the number of 911 hang-up calls.
That answer is texTTY, a program that allows dispatchers to send text messages to callers’ cellphones after police receive a 911 hang-up call, said Mark Grady, founder of Fort Wayne’s INdigital Telecom.
The texTTY program is integrated into a dispatcher’s call-taking program and allows dispatchers to communicate with mobile callers using text messages.
Currently, when a caller contacts 911 from a cellphone and the call abruptly ends, dispatchers attempt to call the number back, Grady said. If they fail to reach the caller via voice call, they can then send a text message to the caller inviting them to text a response. Once they’ve received the message, the caller can then text 911 and let dispatchers know whether the call was an emergency or a misdial.
The program is currently operational in 19 Indiana counties including Elkhart, Kosciusko, Wabash, Lagrange, Noble and DeKalb counties. Grady said he hopes to see texTTY continue to expand throughout this year.
Each day in Allen County, local police and fire dispatchers spend several hours responding to 911 hang-up calls, a challenge that local officials say is costing the department thousands of dollars and restricting emergency personnel’s time.
Allen County spends an average of $19,000 each year on 911 hang-up calls, said Timothy Lee, executive director of the Fort Wayne-Allen County 911 call center.
Money aside, the calls consume something even more valuable – dispatchers’ and police officers’ time.
Hang-up calls include not only those in which the caller becomes disconnected, but also pocket-dials that leave the line open, allowing dispatchers to hear background noise but leaving them unable to make contact with the caller.
After attempting to return the call with no success, a dispatcher must send an officer to the scene, hoping to find out what’s wrong.
As a result, Lee and his staff have begun taking steps to help educate the public about when to call 911 and why it’s vital to stay on the line.
If officers respond to the address of a hang-up call, there’s an increased risk of danger, including car crashes as officers rush to a scene, he said.
To help prevent accidents and reduce the amount of wasted police resources, the best thing callers can do is stay on the line to explain and not be embarrassed if they accidentally dial 911, Lee added.
Marty Bender, a city councilman and deputy police chief, said from the moment the call comes in until the time an officer responds, the average 911 hang-up call consumes about 20 minutes of dispatchers’ and emergency personnel’s time.
County dispatchers handle 55 or 60 hang-up calls each day, and officers respond to between two and three calls each shift, Bender said.
Dispatchers responded to 23,064 hang-up calls in 2011 and 23,936 last year.
That increase seems to be the trend, Bender said.
“The number of calls was fairly stable up until the last 10 years or so when cellphones really started to become popular,” he said. “Since then, it’s been increasing every year.”
According to the Fort Wayne Police Department, 911 hang-up calls are the second most frequent calls for service in the county.
Last year, the total number of hang-up calls exceeded the number of calls about domestic disturbances, alarms, traffic accidents, suspicious persons, disturbances, theft and EMS assists in Allen County.
The only call for service ranked higher than hang-up calls is traffic stops, which totaled 26,830 incidents, police department data show.
Although real emergencies make up less than 10 percent of all 911 hang-up calls, “it all pays off” when someone’s life is at stake, Lee said.
A recent example, Lee said, is the story of the Fort Wayne woman who called 911 last summer and left the line open.
It began as a 911 call logged as a hang-up call from the parking lot of Glenbrook Square shortly after 4:30 p.m. on June 21. A young woman left her job in the mall and walked to her car, but was interrupted by a man who had been stalking her, police said.
On the other end of the line, dispatchers heard a man tell the woman if she told anyone about what was about to happen, he would find out. Dispatchers realized that a rape was possibly in progress and sent police to the area from where the phone call was being tracked.
When police arrived, a woman was found in the back seat with a man and when asked if she was OK, she slowly shook her head “no.” A short time later, police arrested the man.
What first appeared to be a fairly common 911 hang-up call may have saved the young woman’s life, police said.
Monday through Friday during the daytime, most 911 misdials and hang-ups come from two familiar places – children playing on the phone and pocket-dials from cellphones, Bender said.
But at night and on the weekends, the demographic changes drastically, he said.
“At night, it’s a fight that becomes too aggressive and the other person rips the phone out of the caller’s hands or a domestic disturbance that involves weapons,” he said.
Those, Bender added, are the calls when police are most needed and the reason why the county is looking at ways to cut back unnecessary hang-up calls.
Another cause for frequent 911 misdials is the growing number of people with touch-screen phones who don’t know how to lock their phone’s screen to prevent the phone from unintentionally dialing, he said.
“Part of the problem is the phone’s design, but the other part is the way people choose to carry them,” Bender said.
Lee said he doesn’t expect the number of accidental pocket-dials to decline, especially as landlines become a thing of the past.
In 2005, more than three-fourths of the county’s 911 calls came from landlines, Lee said. By late last year, 77 percent of the total calls came from cellphones.
“It’s flipped completely around in eight years,” Lee said.
As cellphone usage grows, so too does the department’s technology to track 911 calls, Lee said.
Calls from landline phones display a caller’s address, name and other important information for dispatchers, but tracking calls from cellphones becomes a little trickier, he said.
To find a call’s origin on a mobile device, police rely on the phone’s GPS and nearby cell towers to track the location. Lee said most calls can be traced to a 100-foot area near the call’s origin, but for calls that come from inside large buildings, locating the caller is a greater challenge.
“Right now, it’s a little more difficult to tell where a call is coming from inside a building because (our display) shows only a building with an ‘X’ on it,” Lee said.
But before long, Lee expects to be able to trace calls using X, Y and Z coordinates – allowing dispatchers to narrow down the call to an exact room in a building, rather than a general area.
In the meantime, Lee said, it’s up to the public to make a concentrated effort in reducing the number of hang-up calls to help eliminate wasted resources.
“The biggest thing callers can do is, if they make the mistake of calling, stay on the line and don’t hang up,” Lee said.