Commentary

Saunders: What dummy would dial 911 instead of 919? Um, er ... never mind

bsaunders@newsobserver.comMarch 30, 2014 

OK, maybe they’re not as dumb as I thought they were.

Or maybe I’m dumber than I thought I was.

Either way, after nearly two years of ridiculing the presumed idiots who mistakenly dialed 911 while trying to use the newly required 10-digit telephone dialing system, I joined their ranks.

Yep, I became one of those I loathed when, last week, I dialed 911 by mistake. I compounded the mistake by – get this – immediately hanging up the phone, as though no one at the Durham County Emergency Center would notice.

Smooth, Sherlock. Smooth.

Yep, I did that

We’d all better be glad they notice, because sometimes we may face an emergency that doesn’t allow us to call back or stay on the line – or even answer their return call. As I sat cowering at my desk, looking at the offending phone and cursing my clumsy fingers – it had to be their fault, not mine, right? – the phone rang.

The professional voice on the other end said they’d received a call from my number and wanted to know what was my emergency.

Since “I’m a maroon” doesn’t technically qualify as an emergency, I had to confess that I’d misdialed. “Oh, no,” I cried out, genuinely mortified. “Please tell me I didn’t dial nine hundred and ’leven by mistake.”

She assured me that I had and then spent the next minute trying to console me.

When the state first converted to 10-digit dialing in 2012 – we were running out of phone numbers in all area codes – the number of misdialed 911 calls (instead of 919) in Wake County zoomed from about 900 a month to as high as 6,000, Barry Furey told me last week.

People of my generation can be forgiven. A little bit. After all, when I first started using a rotary dial telephone in Rockingham, we could reach our intended party by dialing four digits. It later went to five, then seven, now 10. Before long, we’ll be forced to make a value judgment of just how badly we want to talk to someone, because it could be quicker to go see them than dialing 10,000 digits.

Speaking of the number of misdialed 911 calls, Furey, director of emergency communications for Raleigh and Wake County, said, “It’s not as bad as that now, but it’s still a significant issue. ... For the month of January, we had 3,815 situations where we dispatched officers on 911 hang-up calls where we couldn’t get the caller back.”

And now, Furious Barry

Yikes! That’s more than 100 times a day when a cop is sent out on an unnecessary call, which means there are that many times a day when they are not available for legitimate calls. So far as we know, no one has died as a result of a misdialed 911 call diverting life-saving resources, but with that many bad calls, it’s just a matter of time.

Here’s the deal, from Barry Furey and Furious Barry: Be careful when you dial. When you make a mistake while trying to order a pirogi and dial 911, just stay on the line and explain that you erred. Remember, “to err is human, to hang up is stupid.”

I couldn’t reach anyone in Durham County Emergency Communications to tell me how big a problem this is there, but because I don’t think we’re that much smarter than our Wake County neighbors, it’s safe to assume that they have their share of hangups, too.

Furey said “the most burdensome calls” are the ones they receive during bad weather. “We have people calling asking if the schools are open, how are the highways and when their lights are coming back on,” he said. “This last snowstorm, we had one woman who was at the mall call and ask for instructions on how to drive in the snow so she could get home.”

Whew. Compared with those dialing dunces, maybe the rest of us aren’t so bad after all.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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