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Cell phones as toys cause problems for 9-1-1

October 26, 2011 - To a child, a parent's old cellular phone is a toy that can offer hours of fun and the chance to play grown-up.

But to a 9-1-1 emergency call center, that same cell phone has the potential to waste valuable time and endanger lives by tieing up phone lines and dispatchers.

"This is a problem every 9-1-1 center is facing," said Oxford Village Police Dispatcher Debbie O'Farrell.

That's why Sherri Betts, a student majoring in 9-1-1 telecommunications at Baker College in Auburn Hills, wants to help spread the word that old cell phones are not toys.

Many parents don't realize this, but due to Federal Communications Commission requirements, "all cell phones, regardless of status of service or even the lack of service, must be able to dial 9-1-1," according to Betts, a Pontiac resident who spent three weeks working as an intern at the village dispatch center.

"Whether you have a telephone number or not, whether you have signed up for service or not, your cell phone can still connect to 9-1-1," she explained.

O'Farrell noted in many cases, it's a "good thing" these old phones can still reach 9-1-1 because they're often donated to groups that help women who are living in abusive or violent domestic situations.

"They're being distributed to women (so they can) have an emergency contact with law enforcement in the event that they need it," she said.

The problem is children who are using old phones as toys are dialing 9-1-1 centers, not realizing their calls are being answered by dispatchers.

"Call centers across the country are being flooded with these types of calls," Betts wrote in a public service announcement for residents.

"We've had some (cases) where we've had 15 calls in a row from children," O'Farrell said. "It's a definitely a problem. In fact, we had one like that today."

O'Farrell noted the village dispatch center averages about 15 to 20 such cell calls per month.

O'Farrell explained that because these old phones don't show up on the Global Positioning System (GPS) and there's no phone number to call back, it takes dispatchers a while to discern whether the call was a real emergency or just a child playing.

"We start realizing it's most likely a child when we start getting five, 10 (calls) in a row," she said.

O'Farrell indicated that sometimes a dispatcher is "lucky enough" to catch the child before they hang up and ask them to put a parent on the line, so they can explain the situation to the adult and ask them to remove the cell phone's battery.

Unfortunately, these types of calls are a waste of time and resources for 9-1-1 centers as they tie up phone lines and personnel that could be used to assist people with actual emergencies.

Betts indicated the best way to prevent this from happening is for parents to remove the batteries from their old cell phones before giving them to their children to play with.

Getting rid of the battery not only disables the phone, it prevents possible injury to the child. Bett noted that cell phone batteries "have their own inherent risks and dangers."

"There have been reports of phones catching fire, exploding and emitting sparks," she wrote.

Cellular service providers can give their customers information regarding proper battery disposal.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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