Readers say a product designed to filter out unwanted "butt dial" calls to 911 may have some unintended drawbacks, leaving public-safety officials with a difficult decision between saving valuable first-responder resources or potentially opening a liability question.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about a solution developed by Calgary, Alberta-based Interalia that four Oregon counties are using to filter unintended 911 calls, the so-called “butt dials.” One official described the decision to deploy the solution as a “no-brainer,” largely because it prevented 25,000 such calls from reaching 911 call-takers in the first six months of this year. That’s a lot of time saved that can be better spent on legitimate emergency calls.
A few readers responded to this story and basically said, “Not so fast.” They wondered what would happen in a situation where the caller couldn’t speak because they were in imminent danger. Two such scenarios come immediately to mind: a domestic-abuse incident and a home invasion.
I thought that was a good question, so I placed a call to Ken Myroon, Interalia’s product manager. The solution, dubbed XMU+, measures the amount of noise that’s on the line. It has seven sensitivity levels, the lowest of which can recognize “even the slightest whisper,” he said.
Myroon further reminded me that when a call’s loudness falls below the threshold, the caller receives a message that instructs him to speak or press any key on the phone if he truly is experiencing an emergency. The message is then repeated in Spanish. If no response is received, the system automatically disconnects the call, without any involvement of a 911 telecommunicator.
The key to this, in terms of the question posed by readers, is the ability to press any key to ensure that the call is received by a 911 call-taker. It seems like a reasonable workaround, though I wonder how attentive a caller would be to the instructional message if they’re in a panic—a scenario that is possible in the event of domestic abuse or home invasion.
I suppose that community outreach to explain how this works is a possibility, but that’s an expensive proposition—one that might be infeasible for many jurisdictions given the economic pressure that many are under. One potentially serendipitous aspect of this is that many locations are revamping their 911 education efforts to reflect text-to-911 capabilities, so this wrinkle could be added to that initiative at relatively little extra expense.
Regardless of the educational costs, this is a tough call for(PSAP) officials and other relevant decision makers. On the one hand, it would be a tragedy—and a potentially huge liability exposure for the PSAP and the municipality it serves—if a legitimate 911 call is inadvertently intercepted by the filter and the caller loses his life as a result.
On the other hand, unintended 911 calls eat up millions of telecommunicator hours nationwide every year, and one wonders how many emergency calls go unanswered because a call-taker was dealing with a butt-dial. Moreover, many jurisdictions err on the side of caution when they receive an unintended 911 call by dispatching first responders to the call’s location, to ensure that all is well. That ties up precious resources that could be used to respond to legitimate emergencies.
I’m not a PSAP manager—in fact, I’ve never even worked in a PSAP—but it seems like unintended 911 calls are the far bigger problem, and that the risk/reward ratio favors using the new technology.