Island police deal with accidental 911 calls

With the summer population boom, the problem skyrockets.

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Law enforcement on Martha's Vineyard are facing an uptick of false 911 calls this summer. — Lucas Thors

Martha’s Vineyard is facing another slew of accidental 911 calls this summer season. With the population swell the Island experiences during the summer, the Regional Emergency Communications Center (RECC) is fielding more calls, creating struggles for the Island’s police departments, Edgartown Police Chief Bruce McNamee told the Times. 

According to the numbers McNamee provided, the issue puts a particular strain on the down-Island departments of Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury. McNamee said July is usually the worst for accidental 911 calls.  Edgartown and Oak Bluffs experience an especially big number of calls compared to the others. The total number of 911 calls in July were 270 for Edgartown, 246 for Oak Bluffs, 117 for Tisbury, 55 for West Tisbury, 58 for Chilmark, and 22 for Aquinnah. 

McNamee said the annual increase in 911 calls, real and false, during the summer months has a connection with the increase in population from tourists and summer residents. 

McNamee said his department receives multiple accidental 911 calls on some days. Those calls come from various locations, such as Edgartown Harbor, South Beach, and boats. “It can be very hard to investigate, so we try and do our best Island-wide to put ourselves in the general area where that call is, to look to see if there is an emergency,” said McNamee. “In a lot of cases it’s nothing more than someone’s smart watch or they hit the buttons wrong on their cell phone.” An officer may be sent out to assess the issue since sometimes people may be under duress to claim there is no emergency. “I prefer we err on the side of caution,” said McNamee. 

As far as McNamee is aware, there have not been any prank calls. 

The accidental calls take away time and resources from law enforcement officers on Martha’s Vineyard. Even for the Island’s smallest department in Aquinnah, which usually receives less than 20 emergency calls a year, accidental 911 calls can be a hassle. According to Aquinnah Police Chief Randhi Belain, the calls they receive usually come from beaches. Whether a call is accidental or not, officers need to assess whether there really is an emergency or not. Sometimes, people have non-initialized phones, or phones without a valid contract with a cellular provider, so the department cannot call the owner back. This causes further difficulty for officers assessing the situation. “That does cause some trouble for us,” said Belain. “It’s only a non-issue because of the low numbers. It becomes an issue when it is at the beaches.”

West Tisbury Chief Matt Mincone said “there’s no such thing as a random 911 call” to him and each call must be looked into with similar levels of urgency, even if they turn out to be accidental. The department also works to mitigate the false 911 dial problem, such as searching through the West TIsbury master name index or helping people fix their phones. 

“It’s a call for service,” said Mincone. He thinks everybody having a cell phone these days also contributes to increased false 911 dials. 

The Dukes County Sheriff’s Office, which is the first to receive 911 calls, has been feeling the burden of accidental calls. 

“Increased accidental 911 calls negatively affect our local 911 dispatchers and first responders by increasing the volume of call time and responses spent on non-emergencies,” Sheriff Robert Ogden wrote in an e-mail. “Our RECC [Regional Emergency Communications Center] dispatchers are highly trained to effectively prioritize calls, and work closely with our partners in public safety to allocate resources according to priority of emergency. Accidental calls do create an unnecessary high call and response volume, with responding units dispatched in order to determine that there is no true emergency.”

The law enforcement community on the Island has been trying to educate more people about false 911 calls and what to do about them. In 2019, the Martha’s Vineyard Law Enforcement Council made a video outlining how to prevent false 911 calls.

Ogden told the Times some options for the public to prevent false 911 calls: “lock devices before putting them in a pocket or bag; stow devices safely during physical activity (many devices have 911 auto-dial features that are triggered upon impact); keep devices out of the hands of young children, and consider the option of disabling 911 auto-dial features for devices misdialing frequently.” 

The Aquinnah Police Department “piggybacked” onto the public education campaign run by the Dukes County Sheriff’s Office. “We try to do the best to get the word out. Unfortunately, mistakes are going to happen and pocket dials are going to happen. We just try to educate the public as best we can,” said Belain.

“I think people are getting more educated from it,” said Mincone. 

Many people who accidentally dial 911 panic and hang up on the call. According to McNamee, a signal alongside a location is sent to the dispatchers once the call is made. Instead of hanging up and hoping nothing happens, the better option is for people to stay on the line and explain to the dispatcher that it was an accident. 

McNamee does not want to make it more difficult for people to get help from the police, but he is worried that the “huge number of false calls” could make 911 calls be “taken for granted” when they are supposed to be for emergencies and are important. 

McNamee said this isn’t just a problem Island police are dealing with, but is a struggle for law enforcement nationwide.