The City of San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management call center recently spotted a disturbing trend. Call volumes had increased 28% between 2011 and 2014, causing added strain on a limited amount of staff. To help with the influx of calls, agents were asked to work overtime. To explore the reasons for the surge of calls, the department sought the help of the Google 9-1-1 Team, according to a recent BBC News report.
After in-depth research, Google and the City discovered that accidental calls through mobile phones– also known as “pocket calls’– were a root cause for the spike. The general public commonly refers to pocket calls as ‘butt dials’ when a cell phone is accidently activated and a number is dialed. In many cases, a phone will dial an emergency services number when activated. It was discovered that 30% of incoming calls to the department were accidental, resulting in considerable frustration and stress to phone agents.
Dispatchers must retrieve detailed information on each call to address the nature of the emergency. Each accidental call requires a call back by the agent to check if the call is truly an emergency, where the person is unable to speak, or if the call was a mistake. According to the study, 88% were called back by the dispatcher, investing an average up to 1 minute and 14 seconds on this process.
Within the San Francisco call center, 39% of 911 call handlers believed accidental calls were highly problematic, and 80% felt that the call-back process was time consuming.
Accidental calls are not limited to San Francisco. In 2014, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stated that the problem is widespread among 911 call centers. The FCC further cited 70% of calls made to New York City’s Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) were made through wireless phones. Additionally, 50% of those calls were accidental.
Google discovered that in 2010, New York City’s PSAP was inundated with close to four million accidental calls. With the high volume of people who own cell phones, the city predicts that this phenomenon will only worsen.
The San Francisco Department of Emergency Management and Google worked together to draft several recommendations for dealing with the pocket-call problem. Computer aided dispatch systems can be simplified, such as reducing non-value-adds to the process and by automating field captures. Researchers also suggest monitoring call volume against forecasts to plan for sufficient staffing in 911 call centers. Before this study, the DEM was not capturing each incidence of an accidental call. Creating a defined code to classify and capture the number of accidental calls will help managers make better informed decisions based on solid data.
Accidental calls are problematic and should be addressed. They consume time and resources, tire dispatchers and place authentic emergency calls at-risk of not receiving proper attention.