OSSINING, N.Y. – Consider this: The Village of Ossining police 911 dispatcher picks up a call and there’s no answer on the other end.
The dispatcher calls the number back to ask if there is an emergency. No one picks up. What should the police do?
A 911 hang-up may be an emergency or may be a mistake. Regardless, Ossining Police Department spokesman Michael McElroy said, the dispatcher will send a squad car to your door.
“Our policy is we call the residents to confirm that they need assistance or confirm a mistake,” McElroy said. “If we don’t get an answer, we do send a police car to see if there is any emergency.”
McElroy said 911 calls dialed in error are not uncommon for his department, and on average happen about 200 times a year. The Ossining Police Department has responded to about 100 hang-up calls this year, McElroy said, which is a decline from five years ago, when the department averaged 500 hang-ups annually.
It would save police resources if people would just admit it if they've made a call in error, said Kieran O’Leary, spokesperson for the Westchester County Department of Public Safety.
“We prefer people to stay on the line if they do dial 911 when they don’t mean to,” O’Leary said. “Because if they freak out or get embarrassed and hang up, we will send police to their door.”
New York State Police Lt. Hector Hernandez said the Hawthorne headquarters receives around 1,200 abandoned calls a month, including misdials, hang-ups and disconnected calls from cell phones. The number is so high because the state police receive all 911 cell phone calls made in Westchester County, and also dispatch for the towns of Somers, Cortlandt, North Salem, Lewisboro and Pound Ridge.
In 2009, the county police received 92 calls in error, O'Leary said. In 2010, the number jumped to 107. By 2011, the number spiked to 317 when the county began patrolling Ossining. Through May 2012, the county department received 105 calls.
Westchester’s area code, 914, is just one digit away from the universal emergency number, but that may not be a factor in the large number of misplaced 911 calls, O'Leary said. However, the telephone system in local businesses may play a factor.
“At some businesses, in order to make an outgoing phone call, you need to dial the number nine first, then the number one, and then the 10-digit number you want to call,” O’Leary said. “So naturally people dial the first two numbers and accidentally hit the one twice.”
Most police department policies require a patrol check on any 911 call that is not resolved, in case a caller in trouble cannot speak over the phone. More often, it's a young child who dialed the number while playing with the phone. Still, O’Leary said, it is better to be safe than sorry.
“It comes with the territory; we don’t view it as an inconvenience,” O’Leary said. “It’s our duty to make absolutely sure that the public is safe, so it’s not any sort of burden to us.”