Butt dials behind surge in 911 calls

San Francisco’s 28 percent increase in 911-call volume seems to be caused largely by accidental calls.

When San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management realized that the number of 911 calls coming in had been dramatically increasing since 2011 -- straining staff and city resources, and potentially creating dangerous delays for callers -- officials wanted to find out why.

Working with Google researchers, DEM staff pulled raw data from the city’s computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system and monthly call volume reports from May 2011 to February 2015, which provided information such as the type and location of the emergency, which emergency resources were dispatched and timestamps along the way.

Additionally, the Google researchers were given desks in the 911 center, where they shadowed dispatchers full time for a month. For three months after that, they came in one day a week to access the DEM’s data and shadow call takers, Robert Smuts, deputy director for the city’s DEM overseeing the 911-call center, explained.

According to the findings report published by Google, the data showed a 28 percent increase in 911-call volume from 2011 to 2014. Yet despite this increase in the number of incoming 911 calls to the DEM, there was only a 15 percent increase in the number of emergencies the DEM dispatchers entered into the CAD system for police or fire department response. 

Further analysis of the data revealed that 34 percent of all incoming 911 calls were  “miscellaneous” or  “unknown,” leading the researchers to conclude that “about 20 percent of all calls made to DEM could be due to accidental dials.”

When dispatchers call back to make sure everything is OK, they can’t always get through to the phone’s owner and have to leave a voicemail.  In fact, 80 percent of the dispatchers said the wireless callback process was the largest pain point in their daily workflow.

And if the dispatcher does connect, and hears something that suggests something may be wrong, the DEM may be compelled to deploy fire, police and medical to the scene, taking up more time and resources.

“All that time the dispatcher is wrapped up in this call and not answering phones or dispatcher resources, so it is something that has an effect on public safety,” said Zamora.

Zamora also explained that while pocket dialing seemed to be the main cause of accidental calls, there were other factors as well. When people need to dial a line out and have to press “9,” then “1” for the area code, sometimes they are holding down “1” for too long. Children who have been given their parents’ old phones also tend to dial 911 at times.

The report recommended the city automate the process for dispatchers calling back wireless phones. By automating the voicemail message or sending an automated text to save time, DEM can create consistency and improve call center service. Creating a separate CAD code for accidental dials could help track these calls as well as help manage staffing needs and resources better.

“Having a better handle on your data and just knowing what’s driving it, what to expect, is just really valuable,” said Smuts.

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