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Costly 911 hang-ups

The number of Allen County residents who accidentally call 911 is skyrocketing, and that is increasingly putting first responders and the public at risk. Local public safety officials, rightly, want to focus on educating citizens about the problems 911 misdials cause. But they should not rule out punitive measures if the problem persists.

As Julie Crothers’ story Sunday explained, the number of 911 hang-up calls has steadily increased over the last decade. The increase costs the joint city and county emergency communication department an average of $19,000 each year.

Emergency dispatchers always attempt to return the call when a caller gets disconnected or hangs up. But when they fail to reach the caller, they must send an officer to investigate.

Timothy Lee, executive director of the Fort Wayne-Allen County 911 call center, said the center is seeing a 7 percent to 10 percent increase in the number of inadvertent 911 calls annually.

“Our fear is as they increase,” he said, “we are going to have someone hurt responding to an abandoned 911 call. You’re putting a lot of public safety personnel and apparatus en route.”

The increase in cellphones, especially smartphones that feature one-button 911 dialing, is the cause of the increase.

The most important thing is to stay on the line if you inadvertently call 911. “If you make a mistake, acknowledge that so that we are not wasting those resources,” Lee said.

Lee is concerned that the problem will only grow worse with an upcoming addition of 911 texting capability. This next-generation technology will allow people to text 911 and will allow dispatchers to triangulate the location of the emergency. It is being tested throughout the country, including in at least one county in Indiana.

The extent of the problem has led Lee to research what other states are doing, including adopting punitive fines for repeat offenders. Lee said Washington was the most recent state to adopt a fine for accidental 911 calls. That state has a three-strike policy with a $500 fine.

He doubts local officials would be interested in a fine that steep and was clear that local officials would prefer to start with educating residents about the dangers of 911 hang-ups. But he also says if the increase in accidental calls continues, looking at fines might have to be the next step.

Lee said there is a PBS program targeted toward children, and he is grateful for recent efforts from local media to get the message to adults. “The biggest thing is just getting the education out there,” Lee said. “We are hoping it makes people think.”