Nantucket 911 Dispatchers Deluged By Butt Dials

Nantucket’s 911 dispatchers have been almost overwhelmed with butt dials from cell phones this summer, making their already challenging and high-pressure jobs that much more difficult.

“In the middle of an emergency, if a pocket dial comes in, it is a problem because time is of the essence,” said dispatch supervisor Melinda BurnsSmith. “It does have an impact.”

In the span of one hour earlier this month, dispatchers were dealing with a car accident, a Medflight transfer, a fire and other calls for service, all while 10 butt dials poured into the dispatch center phone lines. “It was mayhem in here,” BurnsSmith said.

Depending on which dispatcher you ask, the percentage of 911 calls that come into the dispatch center at the Nantucket Police Department on a daily basis that are butt dials range from 45 percent to 85 percent of the total. The dispatch team didn’t have precise data, but said it’s a big number – dozens of butt dials every day.

Part of the reason is the proliferation of people and cell phones during the summer months on the island. Another reason is that on Nantucket, unlike most other cities and towns, there’s only one dispatch center. All 911 calls come directly to the police station at 4 Fairgrounds Road, rather than get routed to a regional dispatch center or the State Police, which happens in other towns and used to happen on Nantucket up until several years ago.

In most cases, dispatchers can quickly discern that a caller inadvertently dialed 911 – they hear hammering in the background (job site) or someone having a conversation. If it’s a landline, dispatchers may send a cruiser to the location, and lookup the history of the phone number to see if there have been previous incidents of domestic violence or other criminal activity. But with cell phones, they typically call back to ensure there’s not a true emergency happening.

Most critically, though, all the butt dials represent a massive and unnecessary distraction from their primary duties at the dispatch center. “The sharp increase of people brings the sharp increase of phones,” said dispatcher Megan Smith. “Every person has a cell phone that with a few taps of a button calls emergency services. And when that 911 phone rings, it takes priority, so that can drain the whole system.”

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