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Emergency Dispatchers See Increase in Prank Calls, Hangups

Emergency Dispatchers See Increase in Prank Calls, Hangups

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

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OGDEN, Utah (AP) -- Emergency dispatch operators say they're getting an increasing number of prank calls and hang-ups made by children playing with disconnected cellular phones that can still be used to make 911 calls.

"Kids call us and swear at us because they know we can't do anything about it," said Clearfield Dispatch supervisor Wendy Brimhall.

The Federal Communications Commission requires that cell phones be able to make 911 calls as a safety feature even if they're no longer subscribed to wireless service.

Brimhall said dispatchers are helpless such calls come in because emergency-call-only phones do not show a callback number or any location information.

Young pranksters know that, she said.

"They'll call and giggle and the dispatcher will say something like, 'I know where you are,' and the kids will say, 'No you don't,"' Brimhall said.

Deborah Mecham, executive director for Weber Area Dispatch, said it's enough of a problem that she had dispatchers start documenting the calls early this year. There's been a dramatic increase, she said.

The Weber Area Dispatch center, which dispatches for Weber and Morgan counties, documented about 20 of the calls in February; several hundred a month during the spring and about 1,600 in July. The center receives about 30,000 calls total each month.

Brimhall and Mecham both think that parents have given old cell phones to kids to play with, not realizing they can still be used to make 911 calls.

"If parents are giving the phone to the kids, they should take the battery out," Brimhall said.

Dispatchers from several other dispatch centers said the problem is growing.

"We've seen quite an increase in that," said Sara Judson, a Bountiful dispatcher. "You get calls where you can hear background noise, and we have no way of calling back."

It's a problem because the calls clog emergency lines, making it difficult for people who really need help to get through.

Last week, three Pleasant View boys -- two 9-year-olds and a 7-year-old -- used an unsubscribed phones to call 911 and falsely reported that the father of one of the boys had been shot by a neighbor. Nine police officers, a medical crew and a fire crew responded.

When police approached the area with guns drawn, the boys dropped the phone and ran. Police caught up with them and talked to the boys and the parents.

Pleasant View Police Chief Scott Jackson said he doesn't know what the total cost of the response was, but called it "quite an expenditure" and is looking into seeking financial reimbursement for the various agencies involved.

Both Mecham and Brimhall said they have contacted wireless companies to try to address this issue but wireless providers told them there was nothing they could do.

Bob Kelly, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless, citing the FCC requirement said, "As long as the cell phones have battery power, they are still capable of reaching 911."

But, as Brimhall suggested, he also said parents should take the battery out of the phone before letting kids play with it.

Information from: Standard-Examiner

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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