How To Avoid Being A 911 'Butt-Dialer' Nuisance

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Every day, "butt-dialers" are flooding 911 emergency centers in the United States and Canada with hundreds of phone calls. The accidental calls aren't only embarrassing to those who make them, but costly to the emergency response units strapped for cash in these economic times.

"Butt-dial" is slang for a mobile call placed accidentally when ambient pressure is applied to the keypad on a handset in a purse or garment, such as the hip pocket in a tight pair of jeans.

Some apps can guard against butt-calling.

The number of "butt calls" to 911 centers is sobering. In Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 10 percent of all 911 calls -- some 300 a day -- are accidental calls from cell phones.

Similar numbers are found in the United States. In Nebraska, for instance, 3000 of the 35,000 911 calls received in one month alone in Douglas County are butt-calls. Pottawattamie County officials peg the rate of accidental calls in their jurisdiction even higher—15 to 20 percent of all traffic.

While not all accidental calls are butt-calls --- although some are made by buttheads, like the wasted Illinois lad who phoned 911 five times seeking customer support for his iPhone -- an overwhelming number of them are. In Evanston, Illinois, for example, emergency responders estimate that 20 percent of their 911 calls are accidental and 90 percent of the accidentals are butt-calls.

What's the harm in these calls? For one thing, they consume an operator's time, time that could be spent on real emergencies. Operators spend an average of two to three minutes on a butt-call. That's just to determine that the call may be accidental. After that, they may spend more time redialing the number of the call to make sure it really wasn't an emergency.

On some occasions, 911 operators may even have to dispatch emergency responders or police to a call. An Illinois woman, for example, received a butt-call from her husband. When she heard muffled voices and rap music on the call and no response from her spouse, she called 911 and declared that she suspected her husband was kidnapped. Her husband was quite surprised when a SWAT team arrived at the school where he worked looking for his kidnappers.

Although butt-calls have helped catch criminals from time to time -- as when a Gainesville, Georgia man made a 911 butt-call during a drug deal earlier this year -- but for the most part they're just a nuisance. How can you avoid them? Here are some ways.

The easiest method to avoid butt-calls is by locking your smartphone's home screen. On an iPhone, that's done by turning your phone off by pressing a button on top of the handset after using it. A similar button is available for users of Android phones.

Some phones feature 911 override. That means the phone will dial 911 even if the home screen is locked. In those cases you should disable that feature.

Another precaution is to enable the password feature of your phone. That way, it won't make calls unless you enter your password, something that can't be done accidentally. However, some phones that are password-protected will accept voice commands even when they're password protected, a feature that can be disabled.

In addition, some phones may remain active for as long as 60 seconds while they're waiting for a password. During that time, a butt-call may be made.

A ballistic case leaves the phone front exposed.

Carrying your phone in a holster can also avert butt-calls, too. You'll want a holster that protects the front of your phone, though. If the front is exposed, as it is in some Ballistic cases, the possibility of making a butt-call remains.

Apps are available to prevent butt-calling. In the Android Market, for instance, there's a program called Call Confirm that's designed to address the problem. It's received high marks from some 9500 users at the site, 4.7 out of a possible five.

Of course, if you have an old-fashioned clamshell phone, you won't have to worry about butt-calls because the keypad is protected from contact with objects by the top of the handset.

Follow freelance technology writer John P. Mello Jr. and Today@PCWorld on Twitter.

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