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Public urged to disable automatic 911 feature on their phones after surge in false emergency calls

Over three quarters of the 911 calls to North Van RCMP in a recent four-day period were false alarms. Some phones will auto-dial 911 after just a few pushes of a button.
The RCMP is urging people to turn off features on their cell phones that can auto-dial 911, often with just a few pushes of a button. | Chainarong Prasertthai/Getty Images photo

Somewhere in North Vancouver, there’s a kid who’s feeling very sheepish after making a call to 911 when there was no emergency happening.

After the police showed up at his door, “Aedan” wrote an apology note to the RCMP and dropped it off at the detachment.

“I’m really sorry I called 911 when I did not need it,” Aedan wrote. “I did tell the truth when you came to the door. I’m sorry I lied … I know I wasted your time. Thank you for keeping us safe.”

The police don’t know how Aedan came to call the emergency number or exactly what he said to dispatchers.

Unfortunately, part of the reason for that is his call is one of so many non-emergency calls being made to 911.

Over 300 non-emergency 911 calls made to North Van RCMP

Between May 12 and 15 the North Vancouver RCMP received 416 911 calls, said Const. Mansoor Sahak, spokesperson for the detachment. Of those, 325 of the calls were misdials, said Sahak, made because callers didn’t properly secure phones in their bags or pockets, allowed children to play with their phones or – most commonly – making an emergency call automatically through a setting that’s been unknowingly installed on a device.

Sahak said it’s a problem that’s been growing in frequency and has become an issue throughout the Lower Mainland.

With more than three-quarters of 911 calls made for non-emergencies, that causes a backlog for 911 dispatchers and police officers, diverting resources away from real emergencies, he said.

People reporting real crimes and emergencies are often left on hold, said Sahak, waiting for longer periods of time than they should be due to the influx of these accidental calls.

B.C.’s RCMP headquarters issued a similar warning this week, saying over the past several weeks, dispatch centres throughout the province have seen an alarming increase in abandoned or dropped emergency calls.

Automatic 911 dialing feature blamed

Most are being caused by the Emergency SOS feature on Android smart phones which allows users to quickly initiate a call, according to the RCMP.

The Emergency SOS feature on Android and iPhone phones automatically calls 911 after the side button key is pressed five times successively.

Some models of cell phones may automatically dial 911 if the device gets wet, if you shake it several times, or if the power and volume button are pressed together.

Most people don’t even realize the call has been activated, said Supt. Mike Bhatti, officer in charge of the operational communications centres for the RCMP.

But after a 911 call is made, a police dispatcher must determine the caller is safe and there is not a true emergency. If an accidental call is made from a smart phone, callers should stay on the phone and speak to a dispatcher, answering any questions the dispatcher has.

If the dispatcher can’t reach a caller or isn’t satisfied that questions have been answered, an officer will be sent out to investigate.

To cut down on the false 911 calls, police are urging phone users to turn off the Emergency SOS feature – and any other feature that automatically dials 911 – on their phones to prevent accidental calls to 911.

How to turn off Emergency SOS

The Emergency SOS feature can be turned off by following these steps:

  • Go to settings of your phone
  • Click on the Safety and Emergency or Emergency SOS section
  • Slide the toggle to turn the Emergency SOS features off

Meanwhile, Sahak said North Vancouver RCMP would love to connect with Aedan, thank him for his note and give him a tour of the RCMP detachment.

“We want it to end on a positive note,” he said.