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Accidentally dial 911? Don’t hang up

Dispatch warns that dropped calls can divert crucial resources
911 Communications Director Zeta Fail advises callers who accidentally dial 911 to stay on the line until a dispatcher picks up. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

On any given day, the Durango/La Plata County Communications Center receives dozens of misdialed 911 calls.

When the callers fail to notify dispatchers that their calls were accidental, the receiver is obligated to send law enforcement resources to them, diverting crucial resources from serious calls.

“We get (accidental) calls all day, every day,” Zeta Fail, the communication center 911 communications director, said.

Misdials can happen in a variety of ways, she said.

Most smartphones and other smart devices have built-in crash detection or triggers that automatically call 911. Some make calls when the power button is held down too long, while others call when a certain button is hit repeatedly. Often, those who misdial 911 are unaware that the call has been placed until they hear a ring tone, Fail said.

“I’ve had people tell me, ‘I have no idea what happened, I just opened my purse and I could hear it going off,’” she said. “Some businesses have a voice over (an internet protocol) system where they have to dial ‘9’ to get out, and then they’ll try to dial their number, and they ‘fat finger’ the ‘1’ twice.”

As soon as 911 has been dialed, a phone will automatically send out the call, Fail said. Additionally, snow crashes can trigger automatic crash detection services and automatically call 911 or send GPS location without the device holder even being aware that the call was placed.

“(People) will throw their phone or their watch into like a ski mobile, snowmobile or something, and then it detects the crash and it starts calling us and, or it will alert one of their family members could get GPS coordinates, and then turn around and call,” she said.

Regardless of how the misdialed call is placed, Fail says dispatch operators understand that accidents happen.

“Our main concern is whether or not a true emergency exists,” she said.

Instructions released by the Durango Police Department explain what to do if a call to 911 is accidentally placed. (Courtesy of Durango Police Department)

If a 911 call is mistakenly placed, Fail said the caller should remain on the line and notify the dispatcher that they are not experiencing an emergency.

If the caller does hang up, Fail said dispatch will attempt to call them back to see if the call was a mistake.

“We’re going to verify certain things to make sure you’re not in an emergency situation,” she said. “We’re going to ask you to verify your phone number. If you’re a bad guy and you take the phone away from a victim and we call you back and you say there’s nothing wrong here but you can't verify the phone number, that’s a red flag for me.”

If dispatch cannot verify that a call is a misdial, they are obligated to send crucial law enforcement resources to the caller’s location.

“When a true emergency comes in and we are out trying to run down someone who does not have an emergency, the response could be delayed,” Fail said. “So we’re keeping someone else from getting the help they need.”


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