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Thirty percent of 911 calls in SF are butt-dials, Google report finds

Technically Incorrect: A research paper from the Web giant and the San Francisco Division of Emergency Communications shows that accidental butt-dials are becoming a huge problem for emergency services.

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Butt-dials are a pain in the neck for emergency services. MattKeck/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

It all started when the number of 911 calls in San Francisco dramatically increased.

San Francisco's Department of Emergency Management wanted to know why calls to its call center increased 28 percent in 2014 compared with 2011. Fortunately, Google's penchant for letting its staff work on projects that actually help society aligned with this question.

The two sides got together and decided to see what was going on, and their results, released Monday are startling.

In one sample of 197 calls made, 30 percent were discovered to be butt-dials -- accidental calls typically placed from the handset owner's pocket or purse. These went into the computer-aided dispatch system. Of these calls, 88 percent received a call-back from the dispatcher, a process that took anything between 5 seconds and two and a half minutes, further taxing the overburdened emergency-response system. (The average was 1 minute and 14 seconds.)

Of landline calls, 37 percent were said to be accidental dials. These, though, are dealt with much more quickly by the dispatchers.

"This is due to the fact that wireless accidental dials mostly result from individuals accidentally dialing 9-1-1 from their cell/smart phones," the report explains. "When the dispatcher receives these calls, they only hear an open line and they must call back the number to leave a voicemail. However, most accidental dials from wireline phones come from payphones or building switchboards. Because dispatchers are unable to call back these phone sources, a smaller percentage of calls require the dispatcher to call back which reduces the length of the process."

Thirty-nine percent of the dispatchers surveyed said that cell phone butt-dials were the biggest problem they faced.

San Francisco is not the only US city battling butt-dials. The BBC reports that the Federal Communications Commission estimates that 50 percent of all emergency calls received by the New York Police Department from cell phones are butt-dials. This amounts to 84 million calls.

Of course, cell phones are set up -- with very good reason -- to be able to call 911 without the phone being unlocked.

Google's researchers said that in many cases dispatchers in San Francisco didn't bother to note the butt-dials because they were too busy, so the true scale of the issue in that city remains unclear.

The Google team makes several detailed recommendations. Some involve the process by which calls are logged. Currently, San Francisco's system doesn't immediately identify which calls are coming in from a cell phone, as opposed to a landline.

With respect to cell phones, Google suggests an automated text that would go straight to the phone in order to speed up the call-back process.

The San Francisco Department of Emergency Management wasn't immediately available for comment. However, this problem is such a maddening diversion of resources that one hopes a solution can be found.

The emergency services have better things to do than field pointless calls.