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.

911 dispatchers who spoke to ABC News say they have gotten calls reporting fake bomb threats and school shootings. Some are just kids playing with phones.

Last month, the Carpentersville, Ill., emergency call center received 287 calls from the same deactivated phone. Dispatchers eventually discovered that the caller was a 4-year-old girl playing with an old phone, said center director Steve Cordes.

The little girl's emergency? She wanted to order McDonald's.

"It's messing up the 911 system for real emergencies," said Taylor.

There are few reliable statistics on how often phony calls come in. A few states are beginning to compile numbers on what they say is a growing problem.

A recent study of calls in Tennessee recorded about 8,000 harassing calls in the last three months of 2006, said Lynn Questell, director of the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board. Questell said the research was still incomplete.

Reexamining The Rules

The National Association of State 9-1-1 Administrators plans to file a petition asking the FCC to revisit the issue while it collects reliable statistics on the scope of the problem, said Marzolf. The other national dispatchers associations say they are reviewing the issue.

"There's a consensus that something needs to be done," said Wanda McCarley, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, and the head of operations for the Tarrant County, Texas, 911 call center.

There is no clear consensus on what should be done.

Cell phone carriers can block calls that are deemed to be a nuisance, though dispatchers say this is done infrequently. Marzolf acknowledged that blocking unregistered phones from calling 911 could mean that it would take longer for active cell phones to call 911, because users would have to wait for the phone to register with the network when it is first turned on.

Authorities would also have to decide how to deal with the unregistered phones given out to domestic violence victims.

But, dispatchers say, the government needs to take notice.

"This is a problem that is not getting the attention that it needs," Taylor said.