911 Lines Cope With Prank Calls From Old Cell Phones

A 911 call center in North Carolina was flooded with dozens of calls last month from a man with a deactivated cell phone who was reporting phony crimes.

Dispatchers repeatedly sent police out to investigate only to find nothing. They could never trace the caller.

Outside Chicago, the Carpentersville emergency call center received 287 calls last month from a 4-year-old who was playing with an old, deactivated cell phone. The little girl's emergency? She wanted to order McDonald's food.

Across the country, emergency dispatchers say they they're facing a deluge of phony — and often untraceable — emergency calls from deactivated phones, wasting resources that could be devoted to actual emergencies.

"It creates a nightmare scenario," said Craig Whittington, the 911 coordinator in Guilford County, N.C. "There's not a whole lot we can do. When a serious call comes in, we have to send people out to check."

Wireless technology has made it easier than ever to call for help, even using old, deactivated phones, which are required by federal law to still be able to call 911. But dispatchers say the federal regulations, intended to help crime victims, have actually created huge hassles for 911 operators.

"More often than not, [deactivated phones] are being used for prank calls or just kids playing around than they are for saving someone's life," said Patrick Halley, government affairs director for the National Emergency Number Association.

Some dispatchers now plan to ask the federal government to revisit a decade-old regulation that requires deactivated phones to be able to call 911 — a law designed in part to ensure that poor and elderly crime victims can call for help.

"We all thought it was a good idea at the time," said Steve Marzolf, Virginia's 911 coordinator and the former president of the National Association of State 9-1-1 Administrators. "In hindsight, it's been more trouble than it's worth."

Cell Phone Explosion

At the end of last year, wireless subscribers rose to 233 million in the United States, according to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, up from about 180 million in 2004. More than 240,000 911 calls are made each day from cell phones.

But as cell phones become more affordable, people are buying new handsets more often — and passing their old phones along to friends or family. Parents sometimes give old, deactivated phones to children as toys. Some police and community service agencies give them to the elderly or to domestic violence victims who may not otherwise have a working cell phone.

Federal Communications Commission regulations passed in 1997 require deactivated phones to still be able to call 911. The regulations were designed in large part to broaden access to emergency help.

"Having the ability to call 911 whether or not the phone bill has been paid is a critical tool," said Rita Smith, director of the national Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "I know it's saved lives."

'A Huge Problem'

Dispatchers now say the program has had unintended consequences.

"It started out as a great idea," said Richard Taylor, president of NASNA and the director of North Carolina's Wireless 911 Board. "But we found out early on that it was a huge problem."

Because the phones are no longer in use, dispatchers are often unable to trace the phone number and can't use a global positioning system to track the caller's location, dispatchers said.

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