Butt Dials: a Big Pain for 911 Dispatchers

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on October 07, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Last year Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O'Rielly suggested that half of the nation's 911 calls were no emergency. Now researchers have confirmed that there is something to this statement, in San Francisco at least.

Pocket dials -- also known by the more crude appellation "butt dials" -- make up almost one third of the city's emergency calls, according to data from Google researchers shadowing dispatchers. Emergency line operators said these accidental calls were the biggest "pain point" in their day.

The Cost of Pocket Dials

Although it makes for many amusing puns, this is a serious topic. "Dedicated and hard-working public safety officials who answer and respond to Americans in times of need are being inundated by accidental wireless calls to 911," Federal Communications Commissioner O'Rielley wrote in a blog post on the FCC website.

Aside from being an inconvenience for dispatchers, the issue is also a significant waste of resources. Accidental 911 calls raise the cost of 911 services and harms employee morale. Also, these calls directly get in the way of dispatchers' ability to respond to legitimate emergencies.

To solve the problem, O'Rielley recommends finding ways "to educate consumers about better securing their wireless devices." However, any measures taken shouldn't make it harder for anyone to dial 911 in emergency cases.

911 Is Necessarily Easy to Reach

The emergency pocket dial problem is big in part because 911 is necessarily easy to reach. FCC regulations make it so that wireless devices may contact emergency services even when out of service. The rules exist to protect people, ensuring they can still reach 911 operators, and consequently the police ... even if they forgot to pay the phone bill.

But, according to O'Rielly, there have been unintended consequences. In a blog post just preceding the one about pocket dials, O'Rielly wrote about "Non-Service-Initiated Wireless Phones and 911."

Pocket Dial Protocol

The problem with pocket dialing is that it takes up dispatchers' precious time, which should be spent handling actual emergencies. The protocol for dispatchers requires them to return a call and leave a voice mail. This adds anything from 14 seconds to a minute to the time wasted on any given pocket dial. Add all of these up and it makes pocket dials a real pain in the butt for dispatchers.

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