Smart phone, watch features increasingly contribute to accidental 911 calls


MORGAN COUNTY, Ala. — Technology continues to get smarter, it seems like every day, offering users shortcuts and presets to access almost anything at the snap of a finger, and in the case of an emergency, a few quick taps to a smart device could send an SOS to law enforcement that you’re in danger, but 911 center leaders say the amenity is not foolproof.

“Probably 20% of our calls a year are from cell phones or some other device that has called 911 and there’s not actually an emergency,” Morgan County 911 Director Jeanie Pharis said.

Accidental calls coming from smartphones and apple watches are rising, and have Morgan County dispatchers stretched thin. It’s a problem only expected to continue rising as technology gets smarter. The problem is not exclusive to Morgan County.

“It’s difficult for people to manage their personal devices and calling 911, because so many phones have it as an actual feature,” Pharis said.

Five taps to an iPhone lock button, or pressing and holding an apple watch side dial combined with a swipe across its face calls emergency services, which in the case of a true emergency, could save a life, but in an accidental situation, it adds to dispatch call volumes.

Pharis stated even if emergency centers suspect an incoming call is accidental, they can’t treat it as such.

“We do have to call that person back, that phone number that we have, we try to get a location on it, we also have text 911 abilities,” Pharis said.

Dispatchers beg, instead of simply hanging up or canceling the alert, stay on the line and tell them there is not an emergency.

“Because then we’re done with the call. We’re not having to call you back or do texts, and it really shortens the amount of time that we have to spend dealing with that,” Pharis continued.

There is a way to turn off the shortcut for your Apple Watch:

Open your “Watch” app. Then from “My Watch,” select “General” then “Emergency SOS.” You have the option then to hold the auto call, but Pharis said in cases of real emergencies, having that option at your disposal can be a very important, and she says if it keeps even one person safe, it’s worth the extra call volume.

Another tech issue Pharis says to keep in mind is a disconnected cell phone. No matter what, that smartphone keeps the ability to call 911, even if you’ve disconnected it from your carrier.

“There are a lot of uses for it, but it also causes a lot of problems when parents give their children a disconnected cell phone thinking there’s nothing they can do with it that’s harmful,” she said.

Pharis said accidents happen and dispatch will never fault you for that, but communicating the lack of real danger is key to making sure dispatchers are then free to respond to those real emergencies.

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