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Old cell phones cause problems for 911 staff

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By Geoff Hamill

Dialing 911 is not child’s play, but recently, that’s exactly what local dispatchers have experienced.

Two local dispatchers said they and their co-workers have experienced an increasing number of calls that are not actually reporting an emergency.

“We are getting a lot of 911 calls from people who have given their old phones to kids to play with, and they are dialing 911,” said dispatcher Francisco Vazquez.

Friday afternoon, Vazquez and fellow dispatcher Anna Wethington were busy as usual, and the phones at the local dispatch center were ringing off the hook as usual. And, also as usual, many of those calls were non-emergency calls made on cell phones that are no longer in service.

“We’ve had 11 calls today,” Wethington said. “It always shows 911 as the area code, and you can’t call it back since it’s not an active phone.”

The calls come often, but Wethington said they don’t always come from the same number. Different numbers show up almost every time, but Vazquez added that there are times that numerous calls do come from the same number.

“One day we got about 15 calls within a couple of hours from the same phone, and we’re trying to answer other calls, plus 911 calls that can come in for fire and police, so we’re really busy,” Vazquez said. “It’s hard to handle these non-emergency calls.”

On Friday, Vazquez and Wethington were working together on day shift at the dispatch center, but they said there are times when a dispatcher will be alone on the shift, and second and third shift dispatchers almost always work the phones alone.

“When you’re here by yourself, it’s really time consuming because you’re trying to deal with all of these calls at once,” Wethington said.

The solution is simple, according to Vazquez, who said parents should either not give old phones to children, or at least make sure they can’t make 911 calls by removing the battery from the phones.

In 2009, Vazquez said the dispatch center received 4,099 calls, and with the popularity of cell phones, the number of bad calls is growing. He said the dispatch center can now receive 911 calls from all major cell phone carriers, including AT&T, Sprint and Verizon, but also from many of the pre-paid companies like TracFone. Many of the phones will dial 911 if the “9” key is held down for a few seconds, which has only added to the problem.

“If you call 911 and hit send, even if you hang up immediately, that call will come through to the dispatch center,” he said.

Some cell phone carriers, such as AT&T, have recycling programs for old phones. Karen Boblitt, owner of Hometown Cellular in Springfield, said her company has a program through corporate stores that donates recycled cell phones to soldiers overseas. Locally, Boblitt said she donates them to New Pioneers for a Sustainable Future, and that group recycles the phones. Still, Boblitt said there is a way to prevent the 911 calls from old cell phones if you choose to keep them around, especially with children.

“Some phones have a SIM card in them, and if you remove the SIM card, it won’t work even for emergency calls, so if you pull those out, that will take care of it,” Boblitt said.

Another local cellular company is also helping people by giving old cell phones for emergency needs. Thompson Cellular, a local authorized agent of Bluegrass Cellular, passes its recycled phones on to local groups such as The House of Hope and The Caring Place in Bardstown. Jeanette Nally, office manager of Thompson Cellular, said the company clears all personal information from the phones and restores the factory settings, then programs the phones to only make calls to 911. Nally said anyone interested in donating a phone should remember to also include the charger, as the new user will need that to keep the battery charged.

Both providers said customers interested in donating phones, or wanting more information on donating a phone, can contact them at their local offices.