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Nearly One In Three 911 Calls Are Accidental

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network
File photo of call takers at work at the Willamette Valley 911 Center.

A new statistic from Washington state illustrates a problem 911 dispatch centers throughout the Northwest grapple with. About a third of 911 calls in Washington state are mistaken.

Emergency managers say part of the problem is old cell phones.

All too frequently, the calls are not emergencies. But the silence, rustling or muddled voices on the other end of the line create uncertainty.

Washington's Emergency Management Division recently tallied calls to 911 centers and found 32 percent were dialed by mistake.

Oregon and Washington officials say most of those accidental calls are coming from cell phones. Some are "pocket dialed.” Others come from kids or grownups playing with old cell phones.

"Those cell phones will still make a call to 911 even if they don't have a plan anymore. And there are lots of those phones out there," Washington State E911 Deputy Coordinator Bill Peters said.

If you or your kid accidentally dials 911, dispatchers urge you to stay on the line and explain. Otherwise, they may unnecessarily dispatch an officer to make sure everything is OK.

"In today's world, it happens all the time," Peters said. "Usually, it takes about five seconds just to confirm 'I didn't mean to call 911. I apologize.' Usually, that is the end of the call."

The state Emergency Management Division recommended to disable old cell phones that children might use as toys by removing the battery.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.