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You Pay For it - Bogus 9-1-1 Calls

9-1-1 Dispatch centers are being overloaded by accidental calls - And the bill is being footed by taxpayers.
It's 4:00 on a Friday afternoon, and the Brown County Dispatch Center is swamped with calls. But on the other end of the line? Someone's pocket - A call the center is receiving much more frequently. 

        "On a normal day, usually around 35", says Dispatch Supervisor Joe Massie.

And it's not an isolated problem. At the Winnebago County Dispatch Center, the problem is on the rise.

        "I would be very surprised to take less than 4 or 5 hang up calls in a shift," says Dispatcher Heather Gall.

Sergeant Jesse Jensen says there's a number of contributors.

        "It usually ends up being either a pocket dial or someone whose actually called 9-1-1 by accident," he says. "And they hang up because they get scared."

For each department, the response is the same… That's where Sergeant Karl Lau comes in

        "We need to send officers to every single one because you never know when someone really needs us," he says. "Sometimes you can't talk, so you just dial 9-1-1 and hang up because you're injured or whatever reason. So we need to respond and make sure everything is okay."

Lau says his deputies respond to dozens of these calls each week. This year alone, Brown County Dispatch is on pace to receive 14,009 accidental calls.

        "We always have to look into it and think it's real," says Massie.

That starts with a call back. If dispatch is able to reach someone, they'll confirm that everything is alright. But if nobody answers, a complicated response begins. Dispatchers must locate the phone, which is rarely easy.

        "GPS isn't 100% exact, it could be up to a mile off," says Gall.

That makes it difficult for patrolman like Craig Hoffer, an Officer with the Neenah Police Department.

        "When we get in the area we've got windows down listening for anything we can hear like a disturbance or anything like that," he says. "If there's people in the area we might stop and talk with them."

The Neenah PD is on pace to respond to over 600 accidental calls before the end of this year. An issue Police Chief Kevin Wilkinson says is only getting worse.

        "Every year for the past few years we've continued to increase and increase those calls," he says.

The city of 25,000 staffs three or four officers at a time, and for each accidental call, two must respond.

        "Just our agency, we're getting almost two a day," he says. "So when you think about that, that really is quite a significant impact on resources."

But sometimes, the accidental calls require additional resources. Chief Wilkinson recalls a situation that happened just last year.

        "They [dispatch] could hear sounds in the background, and they heard someone yell hit the lights. And then they heard screaming, so it sounded pretty intense. We emptied out the whole department."

The GPS coordinates of the incoming call plotted near the Neenah High School.

        "It was just a student's phone in their back-pack and they were watching a movie. So the instructor said 'somebody hit the lights' and the film started with screaming."

Wilkinson says the threat of a real emergency makes calls like these impossible to ignore.

        "It could be a domestic disturbance, it could be someone who is witnessing a robbery, it may be a pocket dial," he says.

In addition to pocket dials - Officials say kids are responsible for up to half of these accidental calls.

        "When we get calls like that, it's usually repeats and we'll get 6, 8, sometimes 10 calls from that particular kid," says Joe Massie.

Those calls often come in from emergency-mode only phones. Any phone with a battery in it is capable of calling 9-1-1, even if it has no sim card. Tracking these emergency-mode calls can be very difficult, because the numbers don't plot as GPS coordinates.

        "It's not like a house phone where it directs us to what specific house is having the emergency," says Deputy Lau. "Cell phones are mobile which makes it a problem for us to find sometimes."

Officials say it's a difficult problem to stop, but they do have some suggestions on how people can cut down on the number of responses these calls require.

The first: Take the battery out if you're going to let your kid play with an old cell phone. This is the only way to guarantee an phone can't dial 9-1-1 in emergency mode.

The second: Remove 9-1-1 from your speed dial.

And lastly, if you do suddenly find that you've accidentally dialed 9-1-1, stay on the line. You won't be in trouble.

        "It's not a problem," says Massie. "We just want to make sure you're okay."

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