How do people pocket dial 911?

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| December 3, 2011

Butt dialing. It's an age-old problem that has plagued cell phone users for years now. We have all either been the culprit or victim in a butt dialing call. As of late, though, I had assumed butt dialing – or more appropriately named, pocket dialing – had turned into a thing of the past. With the adoption of primarily touch-based mobile operating systems, extra steps have been implemented to prevent the unwanted and unexpected pocket dial.

According to a recent report from CBS Chicago, however, as much as 20 percent of wireless calls to 911 are unintentional or accidentally placed. When talking with CBS Chicago, officials in the Evanston, Illinois 911 call center reported that they receive roughly 500 accidental calls per month, and they believe the vast majority of those calls are butt dials. According to the Toronto Star, Torontonians are extremely skilled with dialing 9-1-1 from their pockets. Toronto 911 operators answer roughly 300 butt dials daily.

Normally, accidental calls, or butt dials, are nothing but a nuisance. The recipient of the call either listens in on a private conversation or the caller apologizes and the two go about their business and all is well in the world.

On the other hand, an accidental call to a 911 center can be more than aggravating or an inconvenience. Emergency workers are forced to investigate any calls, accidental or not – assuming an incoming call with no answer is an accident could result in deaths or injuries that could have otherwise been avoided. This results in the use of a call center's valuable resources, Evanston 911 Coordinator Perry Polinski explains. It requires a call center worker to call the number back in hopes of an answer. They might also try sending a police officer to locate the dialer and investigate the nature of the call. While dealing with this, an actual emergency call could be placed on hold or a police officer, who might be more helpful elsewhere, will be required to necessarily investigate an accidental call. Vince Gerasole of CBS Chicago writes:

"Operators have to stay on the line until the call drops, then call back the number to see if there’s a real emergency. Since cell phones can only be tracked by general location, in extreme cases officers are dispatched to find whoever might be in distress.

'The chances of that happening are slim, but we’ve – a couple times probably, over the past few years – have [sic] had to basically launch a search party to locate somebody,' Polinski said."

More than anything, though, I'm curious as to how all of this accidental pocket dialing is still happening. Back in the day, when I still carried a BlackBerry, I would unpocket my phone to find that I had texted or BBM'd a friend a random string of letters. Once I even recall having called my mother and a few friends some 15 or so times in a matter of an hour while I was at work. Explaining my accidental calling rampage was a very awkward moment, indeed.

But times have greatly changed. The popularization of the capacitive touchscreen, I thought, would have put an end to the pesky butt dial. Even if you slip your phone into your pocket unlocked, the screen will time itself out within roughly 30 seconds to a minute. On most smartphones these days, to unlock a device after the display has turned off, you must physically perform a sliding motion with your finger, a la slide to unlock or pattern lock. This is pretty tough to do on purpose while the phone is pocketed, much less on accident.

That said, as the Evanston 911 call center has disclosed, it still happens very often. And I can attest to that. There have been some instances that I have pocket dialed or pocket texted someone. Just last week while I was at bowling league, my sister pocket dialed me from work about four or five times before she ever realized.

Even back then, though, when butt dialing was a serious problem of mine, I never once accidentally dialed an emergency number while my phone was pocketed. Dialing a contact that is programmed in your phone is one thing; all you have to do is tap the contact's information which, if you can perform a slide to unlock action with your thigh, shouldn't be terribly difficult. To call 911, however, you must dial 9-1-1, in that order with your thigh. The chances of dialing some other, random three-digit number is rather high. The only way around this is to create a contact for 911. Who does that?

Even with feature phones or BlackBerrys, dialing 911 while your phone is in your purse or pocket should be extremely difficult. How one in five wireless calls in Evanston, or roughly 300 calls per day in Toronto, to 911 are performed by callers' rumps is beyond me.

So tell me, readers. Have you ever butt dialed 911? If so, did the police send a search party for you? A SWAT team to rescue you from a hip hop-listening school gunman (see Toronto Star)? Has a butt dialed call ever put you in an awkward position where someone who wasn't supposed to hear something got to candidly listen in on one of your conversations? Tell us your embarrassing and hilarious butt dialing moments below!

Image via Toronto Star