911 hangups increasing, occupying resources
High-priority response to silence on the phone accounted for 10 percent of one Fla. agency's calls last year
By Jessica Lipscomb
Naples Daily News
COLLIER COUNTY, Fla. — "911, what's your emergency?"
Click. Or worse, silence — with no one on the other end. Area dispatchers scramble to find out what's happening.
It could be the guy who pocket-dialed 911 last month while speaking loudly about weed and guns.
It could be the woman who set off her phone in her purse and led officers on an interstate chase.
Or it could be a true emergency, as happened in 2005 when deputies found a 2-year-old holding the phone with his parents, Steven and Michelle Andrews, murdered upstairs.
Southwest Florida law enforcement agencies responded to more than 28,000 such calls last year, which amount to 29 per day in Collier and 46 in Lee. It's an obligation that goes with the job, but it's an obligation that ties up an immeasurable amount of dwindling resources.
"It takes up a lot of time and assets and with 99 percent, we can't find anything," said Dena Macomber, communications director at the Lee County Sheriff's Office. "Then there's that other 1 percent. It's those few times that make the rest of it OK."
Last year, 911 hang ups and misdials accounted for about 8 percent of 911 calls to both the Collier and Lee sheriff's offices and about 10 percent to Naples police. Those types of calls increased in Collier by more than 2,300 from 2010 to 2011.
Local law enforcement agencies typically try to track down every caller. But it's nearly impossible to identify how many actually need help versus how many accidentally dial. Officials said there was no way to capture that data without manually reviewing every case.
There's also no way to track how much money and time is wasted dispatching and responding to accidental calls. Assuming a conservative estimate of 15 minutes per call, however, the calls represented at least 2,600 man hours for Collier deputies and at least 4,100 for those in Lee.
And in Lee County, hang ups or open-line 911 calls are on the same priority level as a robbery or a fire, meaning other calls for service are sometimes put on the back burner.
"We have to assume the person is in a life-or-death situation," Macomber said. "Anything less than that would be lower priority."
After receiving a 911 call where the person hangs up or doesn't talk, dispatchers first call the number back and see if they can get anyone on the phone.
Failing that, if the call came from a landline, they can send officers to the caller's address. But if the call was placed on a cellphone, a more vigorous tracking process begins.
About three-quarters of all 911 calls in Collier last year came from cellphones. The ongoing move from landlines to cellphones likely contributes to an increase in both overall 911 calls and misdials, said Sandra Betts, communications manager at the Sheriff's Office.
"Sometimes technology that is good for the community is a hurdle we have to overcome," she said.
Even having precise coordinates isn't a guarantee they'll find the caller.
"Imagine a hotel with 200 or 300 rooms," said Adolpho Martinez, communications manager at the Naples Police Department. "The address is going to be the lobby, and then it's a problem trying to locate the hotel client who may have dialed 911 either accidentally or for help."
Sometimes 911 communications allow officers to make an arrest or catch a criminal.
Last month, dispatchers began tracking a 23-year-old Bonita Springs man to see if he needed help after he accidentally called 911. Instead, they heard him talking about weed and guns.
Deputies followed the phone's signal to a house in Harlem Heights, where they could smell marijuana burning before they got to the door. The man and his two friends were arrested on drug charges after deputies found joints, a bong and an Advil bottle filled with crack cocaine.
As a coastal region, 911 operators also occasionally get calls from bodies of water, meaning they might need to send out a marine unit or call for help from the Coast Guard.
Macomber, the Lee County dispatch director, remembers a call from a man who had fallen off his boat and was floating around in the water hanging onto a cooler. But because his phone kept losing signal, he wasn't able to specifically tell 911 operators he had an emergency.
"If we hadn't gotten latitude and longitude, he probably wouldn't have made it," Macomber said. "It does save lives. That's why you can't take chances not going."
But there are also true emergencies where a caller might be rendered voiceless.
A deputy who responded to an open-line 911 call in Fort Myers in 2005 knocked on a family's door and was greeted by a 2-year-old boy. He said "mama" and pointed upstairs.
The boy's parents, Steven and Michelle Andrews, were found murdered in the master bedroom.
Carol Follmer, the 911 dispatcher who stayed on the line, said she knew something was wrong when she heard a door slamming and the child's voice.
"You always assume something's wrong," Follmer said. "You have to treat every one like it's a real emergency."
She would not find out until later that she had been listening to the first few minutes of a murder investigation. Often, dispatchers don't get those answers.
"You don't always find out how it turned out," she said. "We're dealing with people at the worst time of their life and then you have to move on to the next person in crisis.
"With something that big, you find out a lot sooner. You realize, wow."
Cutting back on 911 misdials
911 operators say residents can cut back on misdials by locking their cellphones and not programming emergency numbers into their contact lists. People who accidentally call for help should stay on the line so they can communicate that to dispatchers, said Sandra Betts, communications operations manager for the Collier County Sheriff's Office.
Those who live in Naples or unincorporated Collier County also can set up a confidential profile through Smart911 (www.smart911.com) that gives dispatchers access to a caller's photo, address and information like allergies and medical complications.
People who are concerned they might one day become a victim of domestic abuse, for example, could make notes about that in their profile that would be inaccessible to their abuser but available for emergency personnel, Betts said. That could help in a situation where a victim is able to call 911 but not able to speak.
Copyright 2012 Collier County Publishing Company