Butt-dials causing problems at Hillsborough County 911 Command Center

Posted at 5:52 PM, Jun 12, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-14 07:31:34-04

There is a problem at the Hillsborough County 911 Command Center and it has nothing to do with the frantic calls, the urgency to respond to help, or the sheer intensity of the job itself.

No, the problem at this and most other 911 call centers across the country is butt-dialing. It is costing precious time and tax payer money every single day.

In one butt-dial case, roosters crowing can be heard on the nearly 1 minute call. Other times operators hear the radio, a conversation, silence.




This year alone, the Hillsborough County 911 Command Center is projected to get 50,000 hang up calls. That is 10% of their overall call volume and roughly equals out to 137 false calls each day. 

Operations Manager Brad Herron says it's mostly user error.

"People don't know how to use their own devices. They don't know how to lock them or put them in their back pocket or in a purse or a glove compartment. And even just the slightest movement can create a dial," says Herron.

By standards in Hillsborough County, a 911 operator is required to stay on the line and listen until it is clear the call for help is either a real emergency or not.

"They stay and listen because they're evaluating whether there's a struggle, whether or not somebody is just unable to communicate with us directly, or whether it is, in fact, a butt-dial," says Herron.

With every call to 911 comes a call for service. A deputy is dispatched to try and find the caller and to see if they're in distress. Herron says less than 5% of butt-dials are viable.

"We spend three times the amount of handling a regular call, dealing with a hang up call," says Herron.

Many of the false calls come from children playing on old cell phones.

"Old phones that still have a battery life or can be charged can dial 911. A lot of our calls are from those types of phones that parents keep for their kids to play games on, " says Herron.

That translates to less time on real emergencies, a backlog of calls into the 911 system, and wasted taxpayer dollars on manpower that could be utilized elsewhere.

Bottom line? If you realize you've butt-dialed 911, Herron says the worst thing you can do is hang up. Instead, talk to the operator and let them know you are okay.

If you do hang up and the Sheriff's Office calls you back, answer and let them know you are okay. You will not get in trouble unless you intentionally prank call the emergency line.

Another problem Herron sees is people who call 911 several times in a row. For example, people who witness a car crash, or people who let the phone ring three times, get frustrated and hang up and call back.

"Hanging up and calling back is the worst thing you can do," says Herron.

Not only is your new call at the bottom of the stack, but your original call is now tied up with a 911 operator who's trying to call you back.

"We always call back and try to get through to someone. We've had 3 and 4 operators tied up on telephone calls from one residence or business or situation. When you disconnect and call back it creates a burden in the system and another operator is getting that call while the first operator is trying to reach you and call you back," says Herron.

That's two operators for one hang up and that leaves someone calling with a real emergency, often times, on hold.

With 40,000 calls into the HCSO 911 call center each month, they're looking forward to the fall when they'll get next generation equipment. Hillsborough County is undergoing a complete upgrade of the 911 system.

The new equipment has the functionality and the intelligence to see if a call came in and was abandoned by the caller. If the caller calls back, the system recognizes that they've already called and alerts the operators so they're not tying up multiple operators.

The new technology will be in place in October at the central command center in Ybor City. Every call center in Hillsborough County will have the new technology by the start of 2018.