PORT CHESTER, N.Y. – Consider this: The Port Chester police 911 dispatcher picks up a call and there’s no answer on the other end.
The dispatcher calls the number back to ask if there is an emergency. No one picks up. What should the police do?
A 911 hang up may be an emergency or may be a mistake. Lt. James Ladearious, spokesman for the Port Chester Police Department, said the way the system is set up, a number and address comes up on the screen so a hang up is immediately followed by a return phone call.
“If we don’t get an answer, then we send someone,” he said. “You can generally tell if it’s legit or not with the call back.”
If the call comes from a cell phone then one more step has to be taken to contact the 911 dispatch and check for coordinates.
“It’s not instantaneous with GPS, but we can get an idea where it’s coming from and check out the area. More often calls made from a house are hit by accident.”
A few years ago, Ladearious said the department received the most hang-ups due to immigrants in the area calling back to South America. “The dialing was nine then one and they were hitting 911 and those calls get to us before going anywhere else. It seems to have been taken care of and doesn’t happen anymore.”
It would save police resources if people would just admit it if they've made a call in error, Westchester County Police spokesperson Kieran O’Leary said.
“We prefer people to stay on the line if they do dial 911 when they don’t mean to,” O’Leary said. “Because if they freak out or get embarrassed and hang up, we will send police to their door.”
New York State Police Lt. Hector Hernandez said the Hawthorne headquarters receives around 1,200 abandoned calls a month, including misdials, hang-ups and disconnected calls from cellphones. The number is so high because the state police dispatch for all 911 cellphone calls made in Westchester County, as well as providing dispatching services for the towns of Somers, Cortlandt, North Salem, Lewisboro, and Pound Ridge.
In 2009, the Westchester County Police received 92 calls in error, O'Leary said. In 2010, the numbered jumped to 107. By 2011, the number spiked to 317 when the county began patrolling Ossining. Through May of 2012, the department received 105 calls.
Westchester’s area code, 914, is just one digit away from the universal emergency number, but that may not be a factor in the large number of misplaced 911 calls, O'Leary said. However, the telephone system in local businesses may play a factor.
“At some businesses, in order to make an outgoing phone call, you need to dial the number nine first, then the number one, and then the ten-digit number you want to call,” O’Leary said. “So, naturally people dial the first two numbers and accidentally hit the one twice.”
Most police department policies require a patrol check on any 911 call that is not resolved in case a caller in trouble cannot speak over the phone. More often, it's a young child who dialed the number while playing with the phone. Still, O’Leary said, it is better to be safe than sorry.
“It comes with the territory; we don’t view it as an inconvenience,” O’Leary said. “It’s our duty to make absolutely sure that the public is safe so it’s not any sort of burden to us.”