Cary News

Area-code mistakes still jam Triangle 911 lines

A countywide campaign hasn’t staunched the flood of fumbled phone calls that keeps inundated local emergency dispatch centers.

The problem is maddeningly simple and seriously costly. Since the end of March, Triangle residents have had to dial the area code – usually 919 – before each local call. Each day since, dozens of people have mistakenly punched 911, and then hung up.

The mistaken calls are clogging emergency call centers, and in some cases sending police on unnecessary trips. Governments have printed thousands of informational posters and mounted a media campaign in the name of more-careful dialing. But they’ve made no dent in the rate of hang-up calls.

The number of calls is “continuously going up,” said Doug Workman, Cary’s emergency communications director. Cary’s emergency staff are responding to nearly twice as many misdials as they did before the area-code requirement, Workman said. The department took 968 abandoned calls in March, almost 1,700 in April and about 1,800 in May.

Wake County’s communications center also reports stubbornly high numbers of hang-up calls, said county communications director Barry Furey. Two months after the switchover, he found the number of calls “was still going up, which was really both perplexing and frustrating for us,” Furey said.

A 27 percent increase in total calls has slowed the response time for Wake County 911 operators; they now answer 81 percent of emergency calls in less than 10 seconds, down from 88 percent.

“Further delays are anticipated as peak summer periods approach, with bona-fide emergencies increasingly competing with unwarranted calls,” Furey wrote in an email.

Why hang-ups matter

The change also has strained police, who must follow up on unexplained hang-ups. Police officers and sheriff’s deputies are responding to about 180 hang-ups per day throughout the county system, compared to about 30 before the change, Furey said.

Almost all of the mistaken calls come from landlines, and the bulk from businesses, Furey said. If you do call 911 by accident, stay on the line and explain your mistake, he urges.

There are no technological solutions, according to the N.C. Utilities Commission. “Once the code is inputted, 9-1-1, there’s no translation that can be done to make that a 919 call,” said Switzon Wigfall, a coordinator of the transition to 10-digit dialing at the commission.

Wigfall had expected the surge in emergency calls to slow by now, and said the continued high numbers suggest a need for more public education about proper dialing. Local governments are planning much the same approach.

“Right now our main focus is on, again, asking people to take a few extra seconds when they’re dialing,” Furey said. “Those few extra seconds could save somebody’s life.”