911 'pocket dial' problem causes dispatchers to hang up on dying man

The death of a Virginia man whose 911 call was dismissed has sparked an investigation into how dispatchers have been handling the recent influx of "butt dials."

911 dispatch centres ponder whether to respond to every call as pocket dials climb

Emergency dispatchers complain about the number of 'pocket dials,' but what happens when they don't respond to those calls? (Shutterstock)

For all that carrying a smartphone can do to make the world feel safer, widespread access to emergency lines may sometimes hinder our chances of getting help.

The death of a 56-year-old Virginia man who, while trying to seek out medical attention, was hung up on by 911 operators, is sparking a wider conversation around the perils of pocket dialling this week – and about what can happen when dispatchers get too many "accidental" calls.

Robert Paulus of Fredericksburg, Virginia, died of heart disease in April of this year while alone in his apartment, according to the Associated Press.

His son, Michael, told local ABC affiliate WJLA that their family knew Robert was in poor health and that they didn't have much time left with him.

They were nevertheless "devastated" when he passed away – and when they found out that the last call he'd placed on his iPhone was to 911, three days before he was found dead.

'Nobody responded'

"There was one final cry for help and nobody responded," Michael said to WJLA in an interview published this week. 

Robert Paulus, seen here with his son Michael, couldn't be heard clearly while calling 911 in the hours before his death from heart disease. Thinking it was yet another accidental call, dispatchers hung up on him. (WJLA/Submitted by Michael Paulus )
"I might have been able to see my dad one more time," he continued. "I might have been able to say goodbye. And at least know he didn't die alone, either... That's the thing that kills me."

Confused about why nobody had responded to the call, Paulus' family asked WJLA if they could help find an answer. The news station confirmed via the man's service provider, AT&T, that the 911 call was indeed his last, and that it was made at 11:46 p.m. on April 23.

A spokesperson for the Fredericksburg Police Department eventually told WJLA that the call's record had been found through the city's 911 dispatch centre. It was 18 seconds long.

"The dispatcher tried three times to make contact with Paulus," the station reported. "After hearing nothing except an unidentifiable sound, the call was labelled a pocket call, or butt dial, where no callback is required."

Calling it "an oversight," the police spokesperson said that Paulus' call had prompted her department to open an internal investigation into the dispatch centre. Policy could be changed in light of what happened to him that night, she said.

But why are there policies regarding pocket dials in the first place?

911's pocket dial problem

Police departments around the world have been pleading with citizens for years to lock their devices when not in use.

Accidental phone calls have been found to make up more than half of all 911 calls to some Ontario dispatch centres in recent years. 

Even five years ago, the problem was being noted. Police in Toronto said that a total of 107,000 people had accidentally called 911 in 2011 because their keypads were not locked in their bags or pockets.

Concerns about these calls bogging down emergency dispatch centres prompted the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police to raise the issue with Canada's federal government in 2014, prompting a response from the wireless industry that pledged to stop selling phones which could call 911 with the touch of just one button.

Two years later, police are complaining that the problem still persists.

"In some jurisdictions, emergency personnel will respond to all calls, even the murky ones," reads an editorial about Paulus' death published Thursday in Charlottesville, Virginia's The Daily Progress newspaper. "That's reassuring."

"Fredericksburg may have considered that it would be prohibitively expensive to respond to every call," it continued. "And yet there's that proverbial one in a million case where the call is not accidental but a legitimate cry for aid."

"The 'what ifs' are haunting."


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