Butt-Dialing 911

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader has some advice if you ever find yourself accidentally and unknowingly dialing the emergency hotline:

I have worked as a law enforcement dispatcher for 14 years, the last two as part of a 911 center. I must first say that most reactions from people are positive, usually along the lines of “I could never do that!”—even (especially) from officers. I have come across a couple of incorrect assumptions, though. The one I have dealt with personally is that because I work with law enforcement, I’m a hardcore law-and-order type. While this misconception may keep me off juries, in fact I—like most others in the profession with whom I am acquainted—probably have a  more balanced opinion of law enforcement than many people.

Another assumption my supervisor hears  is “Oh, so you answer phones”—in a tone that suggests that people call 911 to chat. Yes, we answer phone calls—from people who are frequently angry, upset, or in great distress to the point of incoherence. It is up to us to turn that call into useful information to be used by the appropriate responders.  

Actually, the type of call I would most like to mention is the accidental 911 call. These have become increasingly common with cellphones with single-button 911 activation. Many people don’t know that they did it (the “butt” or “pocket” dial). This is a large enough problem at some centers that software exists to help handle it.

It’s policy at our center to check out all 911 calls with at least a call-back and in most cases send an officer. If you do accidentally dial 911 and you realize it, please stay on the line and let the call-taker know what happened and where you are (or follow the procedure for the center you contact). If you get a call from us because of an accidental dial, please bear in mind that we have to check out all 911 calls and be patient and cooperative.