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Emergency services: 911 misdials are no joke

'As an example, some of the newer iPhone models will dial 911 by pressing two buttons on either side of the phone at the same time,' says police official
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(File)

BARRIE — The first three calls to 911 in Barrie this year were misdials. 

And it's a problem that continues to grow. 

In 2019, from January to the end of October, Barrie police fielded 27,506 911 calls, which is an increase of almost 2,500 from the year before, according to police statistics. 

And about 13 per cent of those were placed accidentally. 

"We had 3,507 accidental 911 calls," Barrie police communications co-ordinator Peter Leon told BarrieToday. "These would be pocket dials, children playing with phones or pre-programmed 911 that were dialed accidentally or in error."

That's also an jump of about two per cent over 2018 stats, when 2,755 bogus calls were mistakenly placed to 911 calltakers in Barrie, accounting for about 11 per cent of the total calls fielded. 

City police saw an increase of 752 accidental 911 calls in 2018 and 2019, which is, on average, just over two a day.

Part of that can be attributed to new features on some cellphones.

"As an example, some of the newer iPhone models will dial 911 by pressing two buttons on either side of the phone at the same time," Leon said. "For those new to the phones, this can lead to unsuspecting calls to 911."

Of all the calls, Leon said close to 14,450 of them — or 53 per cent — required a police response. By comparison, that number was only 9,325 in 2018, or 37 per cent. 

"In these cases, addresses were checked to confirm that everything was OK," Leon said. "If there was, for example, unknown trouble, a police response would take place and would be deemed a priority until determined otherwise."

The remainder of the calls, around 43 per cent, were actual calls for service that included robbery, assault, domestic incidents, motor vehicle collisions, break and enters, thefts, etc., Leon said, where police were required and investigations were carried out. This number was 52 per cent in 2018.

"Although we regularly remind the public, our non-emergency number 705-725-7025 is also available and connects to our communications unit and should be used for non-emergency calls for service," Leon added. 

To provide a snapshot of what calltakers handle on a regular basis, on one recent day they had 58 calls to 911. These require dispatchers to determine if they are accidental or require some sort of follow-up, which could mean officers attending a scene or a return call to determine what happened. 

"We understand that there are legitimate 911 calls that happen, but these 911 lines into our communications centre cannot be tied up with accidental calls when people are reporting potentially life-and-death situations that require a police response," said Leon.

He noted 911 calls are treated "very seriously" and misdials can take attention away from real emergencies. 

"They also tie up valuable police resources, should police be required to respond to determine the validity of any such call," Leon added. "In fact, the first three calls of 2020 were accidental 911 calls and one came as a result of someone connecting a selfie stich to their phone."

Here are some tips from police to avoid 911 misdials:

* Lock the phone’s keypad or buy a case that covers the front screen
* Avoid programming a wireless device to speed-dial 911
* Ensure the auto-call feature is turned off for smartwatches that are synced to a mobile phone.

Accidental 911 calls are becoming a problem elsewhere, too. 

The Town of Tecumseh, located in the Windsor area, has adopted a resolution and forwarded it to Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, as well as other municipalities, requesting the Ontario Association of Police Services Boards (OAPSB), the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP), the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) to lobby the telecommunications industry and smart-phone manufacturers to develop a solution to 911 misdials.

Tecumseh officials have noted 911 misdials in that community has risen "dramatically" in recent years, corresponding with the more widespread use of cellphones. 

Not only do the misdials take away from legitimate calls for service, but two OPP officers respond to each 911 call and it takes an average of 1.2 hours to handle the incident.

Each 911 call is billable to the municipality, in Tecumseh's case. There were close to 1,100 misdials in that southern Ontario community in 2019, accounting for almost 29 per cent of all billable calls.