Urgent Matters

The readers always write: Stopping 911 butt dials


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 public-safety answering point (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.

Discuss this Blog Entry 3

Ken Johnson (not verified)
on Oct 17, 2013

One thing to consider is if a deaf person is making the call. We work closely with the deaf community, and we have instructed them to call 911 even if they can't talk. Deaf people do have cell phones, some of which are text only plans. Although we have told them to monitor timer on call & if call shuts off to call back again. Not sure if that would happen in a real emergency. I do understand that there is an excessive amount of time given to butt dials.....

Mike (not verified)
on Oct 17, 2013

I'm amazed that this option is even considered. I have to disagree with your conclusion - the FAR bigger problem is the risk of missing a call for help! One tragedy is not worth the cost of cutting down on responding to false calls. Education, followed by eventual civil penalties are the keys to reducing these calls in areas where they are over-taxing the system. Filtering actual calls, either intended or not, is not the job for technology - particularly technology that can't determine if someone's daughter has been obducted and manages to dial 911 for help. A community that has so many false call that they would even consider this option should first consider going back to using a 7- or 10- digit telephone number for emergencies - they are not prepared for serving the public.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Oct 18, 2013

Four Oregon Counties, 25000 butt dials prevented in 6 months. 6000+ calls/county, 1000+ calls/month, 33+ calls every day per county. Hmmm, those statistics sound reasonable to me.

Post new comment
or register to use your Urgent Communications ID
What's Urgent Matters?

Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.


Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
Blog Archive

We use cookies to improve your website experience. To learn about our use of cookies and how you can manage your cookie settings, please see our Cookie Policy. By continuing to use the website, you consent to our use of cookies.