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Old cell phones give dispatchers headache

PROVO — "Provo 911, what's the address of your emergency?"

Dispatcher Julie Bell waits for an answer, then repeats the question.

"Hello? This is 911. If you need help, press a button."


It's not the first 911 hang-up Bell's taken today. It's more like the third or fourth.

Since January, Provo dispatchers have received 1,053 abandoned 911 calls from deactivated cell phones — an average of 351 a month, said Provo Police Lt. J.D. Lougee.

"We know our resources are being tied up on those (calls), starting with dispatchers, then tying up an officer out on a location," Lougee said. "If someone's playing on the phone, that officer should be involved in something else."

Since January, the center received 10,307 non-abandoned 911 calls.

Up north during the same three months, Salt Lake City dispatchers fielded nearly 23,000 calls. An average of 15 percent of those calls were 911 hang-ups from deactivated cell phones — about 3,500 calls, said Roxann Cheever, director of the communications division for Salt Lake City police.

The majority of "bad" calls come from young children playing with old cell phones or phones no longer attached to a service plan, Lougee said.

What many parents don't realize is that those old or deactivated phones — if they still have battery power — are capable of calling 911.

However, unlike an active phone, the old phone doesn't provide emergency dispatchers with a call-back number. When such a call comes in, it shows up with a 911 prefix and seven digits of an "Electronic Serial Number."

An ESN is assigned to a particular phone through the cell-phone company. When dispatchers see those seven digits, they'll start calling cell-phone companies, hoping to glean information about the phone's most recent owner and get a possible address.

However, if they're unable to call back and confirm a mistaken 911 call, officers respond to the location — as they do on every 911 call — hoping they've been given the most recent address.

The ability for any phone to dial 911 regardless of service status is a Federal Communications Commission rule intended as a safety feature.

It was also a way for individuals to "recycle" their phones by providing old, 911-capable-only phones to people who can't afford a phone but who might benefit from a quick emergency link, such as senior citizens or those in battered-women shelters, Lougee said.

However, it's hard to know how many legitimate emergency calls come from individuals in that situation, versus the number of calls that come from children's innocent dialings or from thoughtless pranksters.

Plus, if the old phone hasn't been updated with a new owner and a new number, callers are nearly impossible to find should there be a real emergency.

"It's kind of a false sense of security given to those people," Cheever said. "Because if you donate them to a women's shelter ... and they call 911 and they hang up, there's no way to locate them."

Along with the deactivated cell phones, active ones — used incorrectly — can also cause headaches for dispatch centers.

One activated cell number recently called the dispatch center twice within a few hours. Bell traced the number and called it back.

"This is Provo 911," she said. "Do you have an emergency?"

"Oh, I'm sorry, my son's been playing with the phone all day," the woman said and quickly hung up.

The fewer number of children playing with phones, the fewer unintentional 911 calls.

"I would never let my child play with my active phone or an inactive phone," said Stephanie Walsh, Sprint Nextel spokeswoman. "It's not a toy."

The FCC has also asked cell-phone companies and users to turn off their phone's speed-911 dialing, which means that if the key "9" is pushed and held down, 911 is immediately called.

Locking a cell-phone keypad when not in use will also prevent a purse or pocket 911 call, according to the FCC's Web site.

Many companies such as Sprint Nextel encourage their customers to fully recycle their old phones. Not only does it help save the environment and allow the reuse of materials, but it eliminates the possibility of a 911 call from an old phone, Walsh said.

Consumers can look for pre-stamped envelopes at local cell-phone retailers to mail in old cell phones, cell-phone batteries or chargers to a recycling facility. Or, customers can simply drop off a phone at any cell-phone retailer, without regard to brand or service provider.

"It's nice that they work should they be needed in a real emergency, but if they're not used in the right way they pose a problem," Walsh said. "To that end, I would really encourage people to recycle their old devices."

Recycling is a crucial step to getting old phones out of circulation, but it doesn't immediately solve the complex cell phone/911 question, said Rick Jones, operations issues director for the National Emergency Number Association.

"We have to be careful on this one," Jones said. "There's no simple easy point to what's wrong and what you can do about it. Because if we do find a solution, whatever it is, we don't want you, as a valid customer ... to not have 911 services."