In recent months, law enforcement agencies across southeast Wisconsin, including Sheboygan, Waukesha, Dodge and Green counties, have been grappling with a significant increase in 9-1-1 hang-up calls.
Law enforcement officials say the accidental calls, often triggered by smartphone features designed to expedite emergency dialing, have placed an undue strain on emergency resources and staff, and have hindered response times to genuine emergencies.
For example, during May, the Sheboygan County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Communications Center witnessed a staggering 32% rise in 9-1-1 misdials compared to the previous year.
Communications officers attribute the spike in 9-1-1 hang-up calls to an update in SOS features on smartphones and smartwatches.
Many individuals may not fully understand how these features operate, leading to unintended emergency calls. The situation is further exacerbated by inadvertent button presses or jostling of phones in everyday scenarios, such as placing them in cup holders or pockets, communications officer Brett Pilling explained.
“It is people maybe not just knowing how their phone functions. And when we tell them their phone dialed 9-1-1, they are surprised by that sometimes,” he added.
According to Pilling, the Sheboygan County Sheriff’s Office received 173 9-1-1 misdials versus 163 intentional calls over Memorial Day weekend.
“It’s a little troublesome and worrying,” he remarked.
The consequences of these accidental 9-1-1 calls are far-reaching. Each hang-up call requires thorough investigation, including multiple call-back attempts and attempts to ascertain the caller’s location.
“We have to then call them back or call the number back to make sure there’s no emergency going on,” Pilling said.
In Sheboygan County alone, the dedicated efforts to follow up on these misdials accounted for approximately eight and a half hours of manpower over a single weekend. This diversion of resources can potentially delay responses to genuine emergencies, posing risks to public safety.
The Iowa County Sheriff’s Office is facing a similar predicament with 9-1-1 hang-up calls skyrocketing.
Within the first five months of 2023, the agency received 1,182 hang-up calls, a significant increase compared to the 1,330 hang-ups reported in 2022.
According to Dispatcher Taylor Cherek, each 9-1-1 misdial requires a comprehensive and time-consuming evaluation.
“First, we will attempt to call them back,” Cherek said. “Then we leave them a voicemail. We can send them a text on our rapid SOS. And then we call them back two, three times. And then if they do not answer or respond to our text messages, we will send an officer out to their location to make sure everything is OK.”
The trend appears to be affecting all areas of the state.
The Badger State Sheriff’s Association reported that 9-1-1 calls across Wisconsin agencies have doubled since last year, with Waukesha County reporting a 140% increase in hang-up calls.
And it’s not just Wisconsin and Iowa that are experiencing the issue, other states are being affected as well.
Anoka County in Minnesota has also witnessed a surge in 9-1-1 hang-ups, with the number doubling within a month.
“We answer all the calls here at Anoka County 9-1-1: ‘What’s the address of your emergency.’ And we don’t get a response. And most of the time, you can hear things in the background. Sometimes you can’t, because it’s something’s in a purse, in a pocket, (or a) backpack. So it’s calling accidentally,” Assistant Director of Emergency Communications Kari Morrissey said. “Our policy here is we treat these as a real call, because you do get the ones that are emergencies.”
Dispatchers believe the rise is directly linked to smartphone technologies that facilitate automatic crash detection and simplified emergency dialing.
Android users, in particular, have inadvertently triggered emergency calls by pressing the power button repeatedly, a feature implemented for user safety.
Experts say that depending on the phone, it only takes three to five clicks of the power button to dial 9-1-1, with law enforcement agencies citing a recent Android system update as the cause of the calls.
This issue has prompted concerns among law enforcement agencies, as operators are obligated to remain on the line until they can establish the nature of the call, potentially diverting them from real emergencies.
To mitigate the strain on emergency services and alleviate the potential risks posed by these misdials, authorities urge individuals to take precautionary measures. Users can disable the Emergency SOS feature on their Android and iPhone devices through their respective settings if they believe it is unnecessary.
However, if an accidental 9-1-1 call does occur, dispatchers emphasize the importance of staying on the line and communicating with them to confirm there is no emergency, thus saving valuable time and resources.
Law enforcement agencies and telecommunications departments continue to monitor the situation closely. If the trend of 9-1-1 hang-ups persists and impacts call response times, staffing adjustments may be necessary to ensure the timely handling of emergencies.