09 January 2012


We all make accidental calls. But emergency services get more than their fair share, says CyberShrink.


I've been seeing American reports of a plague of Butt-Dialling, but haven't heard whether this has so far been a problem in South Africa. Have you made, or received, accidental calls caused by various unintentional pressures on the key-pad ? 

Now that's what I call a cat-call
Mind you, last week my cat made a call on my cell-phone, so anything's possible. She has a possessive habit of sitting on any of a range of objects which belong to me, and tends to trample them in her delight, before settling down. The other evening, she was marching around various miscellaneous items. I heard a mumbling coming from her usually silent rear end. As she isn't known for her talents as a ventriloquist, I investigated and found a call in progress. She had dialled a number, and the call was live. I stopped the call, and she gave me one of those inscrutable but annoyed gazes she specialises in, and I wondered if this was the first call she'd made.

Accidental emergency calls
Anyhow, at least in America, there seems to be a consistent problem with folks who have loquacious loins, or an articulate ass. Apparently every day there are hundreds of calls pouring into 911 emergency call centres in the USA and Canada, made by distressed backsides. Especially in such times of budgetary stress, these are costly to emergency response units.

You may think the extent of this problem is being exaggerated, but I read that in Toronto, around 10 % of all calls to the emergency 911 number, around 300 daily, are "accidental" calls from cellphones. In Nebraska, there were 3000 butt-calls a month, and officials elsewhere have estimated 15-20% of all emergency calls arise in this way.

"Butt-dialling" is the popular term, I discover, for accidental mobile calls made when the keypad gets pressed while the cellphone is in a handbag that gets squeezed or while you're fumbling in it, or when its squashed while in the pocket of one's jeans. Apparently the more polite term is a "pocket-call".

Much will depend on the structure of the phone (clam-shell or flip-top designs don't have this problem), on the nature of emergency call numbers, and on how each phone is pre-programmed to handle such calls. Random fumbling may re-dial the last number you called, but some will, in a variety of circumstances, go automatically to 911 or whatever the local emergency number is.

Of course not all accidental calls come from an agile gluteus maximus, or talkative tush, but apparently the great majority are. I do wonder, though, as the phenomenon becomes better known, whether some dummies who have made dud calls due entirely to their own idiocy, use this as an excuse.

How they cost so much
The calls aren't merely tiresome. They use up scarce and trained time of an emergency service operator, and may delay responses to genuine emergencies. Apparently it takes them on average 2 to 3 minutes per butt-call, to make sure it was accidental, rather than perhaps a genuine emergency call from someone who has collapsed and is no longer able to speak.

They may have to re-dial the number to check that it was indeed accidental. The ambiguous sounds made during an accidental call may be similar to those occurring during an actual emergency.

If they can't be sure, they may have to send an ambulance or police to respond to it. There's a story of a woman in Illinois who received such a call from her husband, and heard muffled voices and music in the background (apparently a rap song with menacing lyrics), without any reply from him. She jumped to the conclusion that he had been kidnapped, and called 911 herself, surprising her husband when a police SWAT team swooped into the school where he worked, looking for his abductors. Rarely the call can be helpful, such as when a man in Georgia accidentally called 911 while making an illegal drug deal.

Avoiding the unwanted call
How can one avoid making such calls? This may be where it can be an advantage to have a less than entirely smart phone. Lock the home screen of your fancy phone. With some phones you push a button to turn it off.

Some American phones have a well-meaning but potentially troublesome feature called 911 over-ride, that lets such phones call 911 even if you locked the screen, and one may need to disable that feature.

On some phones, apart from forgetting to lock the keyboard, it can be easy to unlock it accidentally. Some phones easily call a recently dialled number. There are some apps, such as Call Confirm for the Android, which can guard against butt-calling, at least by asking you to confirm that you actually want to make a call. But they could be annoying when making ordinary calls.

Some phones will let you enable a password feature, so it won't make calls unless you first enter your password, which won't occur by accident. But some of the fancy phones will accept voice commands even if password protected, and this feature, too, may need to be switched off. Some will remain active while waiting for a password to be entered.

Sometimes the problem arises when one assigns 911 or some similar emergency police or ambulance number to speed dial with a single number. Some makes of phone by default assign an emergency number like 911 to the first speed-dial number, which makes such accidents much easier. Some make an exception for such emergency numbers even when the keyboard is locked: when any random sequence of numbers gets pressed that simply happens to include the emergency numbers, that is the call that will be made.

With my Nokia phone, 112 serves as an all-purpose emergency number. Lucky the cat missed that one.

When you do accidentally happen to dial an emergency number, it's considered good practice to at least stay on the line long enough to apologise, and make sure no further time is wasted checking on your call.

Butt-calls need to be distinguished from that other great American contribution to the Arts, the Booty-Call, which is apparently a late-night call to set up a non-committal sexual encounter, supposedly without any emotional involvement. One of the benefits of having a friend with benefits. Usually at no added cost, or booty duty.

(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, December 2012)






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