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Accidental calls occupying valuable Germantown officer time

Aug. 25, 2014

Germantown — It happens to everyone from time to time.

Whether the giver or the receiver, in the age of Smartphones, pocket dial phone calls are becoming a reality of life. But for the Germantown Police Department, the way of the technological future is taking away from how they do their jobs in the present.

Mistaken 911 calls to the department are at an all-time high in the village, according to Police Chief Peter Hoell.

"Most people don't even realize they've called," he said, adding that the quantity of mistaken calls continues to increase as more people abandon landlines for Smartphones. "As technology continues to improve, this is one of the drawbacks."

A rustling around in the background, non-responsiveness from the caller, and general fuzzy sound to the call usually alerts dispatch officer Carrie Ross to the occurrence of one of these calls, but she said none of that affects her response to the matter.

"Generally if we believe it is a pocket dial, we can hear talking or movement in the background, but we try to stay on the phone as long as possible to identify anything suspicious about the call," Ross said.

Even if the call is ended by the caller, Ross said dispatchers make every effort to reach the person to ensure their safety, including a follow-up after the fact.

"A lot of people don't realize we need to get their information and have them meet with an officer to make sure there wasn't a problem," Ross said. Even in the case of a jogger the other day, Ross said it doesn't matter. "It's for their own safety," she said.

Follow-up required

While the department receives an average of as many as seven pocket dial 911 calls in an average day, Hoell said the department received more than double that many on Friday, Aug. 22. From the time of initial call to a police response to the location of origin, it can take as long as a half-hour for the department to appropriately rule out potential suspicious activity associated with each call. The process for Ross is the same regardless of the origin of the call.

"We take every call as seriously as the last, and always try to rule out any suspicious activity," said Ross, who frequently mans the dispatch line solo. "It doesn't matter if we believe it might be an unintentional pocket dial situation, because you never know when it could be something more."

Even the tracking available through technology in a person's cellphone isn't always accurate, which accounts for part of the extra time it can take an officer to locate a person who accidentally makes a call. Most recently, Hoell said there was a case where the call tracked to Tri-City National Bank on Appleton Avenue when the caller was actually located down the block at Menards.

"That is just taking us away from being proactive with other problems with speeding or other incidents in the village," Hoell said.

Though it only accounts for about 5 percent of what could be perceived as misdialed emergency calls, Hoell said there are instances when police respond to potential accidental call that turns out to be of legitimate concern. Of the 15 pocket dial calls received on Aug. 22, there was one that alerted police to a domestic violence incident, which Hoell said is the most common silver lining in the technological advancement of cellphone emergency calls to the department.

"It's very rare," he said, "but it does happen in a medical emergency when someone can't communicate what they need or a domestic violence call when it's otherwise challenging for the person to call directly."

When it comes to making positive change, Hoell said it falls in the hands of the cellphone user to determine the best way of preventing accidental calls, not just to the department but to anyone who may not appreciate a pocket dial.

"We could talk to Samsung or any other provider, but they're not going to listen to us," Hoell said. "Ultimately, it takes a certain amount of personal responsibility to educate themselves about what options their phones have and make smart choices."

Among his suggestions were to purchase a carrier for the device to help prevent accidental calls, or work with an individual carrier to see what options they provide for emergency calling.

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