Prank calls on old cells tying up E-911 workers

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 9, 2009

Making a prank call to 911 no longer requires a working phone.

Of the roughly 50 such calls received Wednesday by the Vicksburg Warren E-911 Emergency Communications Center, about a dozen were from callers taking advantage of a Federal Communications Commission rule that requires out-of-service cell phones — on which no other call could be made or received — still work if the emergency number is keyed, said watch commander Angie Mathes.

The rule “has a good purpose — making sure that everyone has access to 911,” said Michael Gaul, center director. “But it’s created a huge problem.” The possibility for mischief often arises, he said, when parents give their children old, out-of-service cell phones as toys. “They don’t realize what can happen,” he said.

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Mathes said Wednesday was not unusual — that between 30 and 50 prank calls a day is normal. Some callers say nothing and hang up. Others utter obscenities. Others report obviously fabricated accidents.

When initiated nearly 20 years ago, so-called caller-identification software was new and because authorities could get the name and addresses of callers, a selling point was that false claims for fire, police, ambulance and rescue services would be eliminated. But E-911’s current technology makes it hard to catch any of the prank-callers, center personnel said.

When 911 dispatchers receive a call from a wired phone, the caller’s address appears on a screen at E-911’s call center in the basement of the Warren County Courthouse. But the screens display only the location of the cell-phone tower that is transmitting a cellular call.

“When it’s a working cell phone, we at least have a number to call back,” Mathes said.

But out-of-service cell phones present a more difficult challenge. Mathes said that dispatchers have to work with the wireless company that transmits the call to figure out the location from which the caller phoned. It’s a process that can take 20 to 30 minutes, she said, time that can better be spent concentrating on real emergencies.

“Somebody may have had an accident,” Mathes said. “Somebody may be choking. Prank-callers need to think about who they might be preventing from getting help.”

Gaul, Mathes and other dispatchers hope that those issues will be resolved when E-911 starts operations at its new building at 1401 Clay St. Gaul said the center will feature Enhanced 911 Phase II technology, which can pinpoint callers on computerized maps within 50 to 300 meters of their actual location.

Warren County supervisors in March 2006 paid $230,000 to purchase the building that will house the new E-911 center, and that amount plus the cost of remodeling and equipment totaled nearly $2 million.

Dispatchers were supposed to move into the building late last year, but electrical problems and other issues have delayed the opening for months. Gaul said another move-in date will be set soon.


Contact Ben Bryant at