(Mike Koozmin/2014 S.F. Examiner)

Butt dials contribute to jammed up city dispatch center

City dispatchers are jammed up by a growing number of 911 calls, and while an increase in reported crimes is contributing to the problem, there may be another unexpected reason for the jump — butt dials.

A recent Google study of S.F.’s Department of Emergency Management found that some 29 percent of sampled emergency calls were accidental dials. Of the sample, 197 accidental calls were from cellphones, while only 79 were from lines to a building.

The Google study released in October is cited in a city controller’s report released last week that shows the department has struggled to keep up with an uptick in 911 calls.

The national standard, which San Francisco is falling behind, is answering emergency calls within 10 seconds, according to the annual report on the performance of city agencies released Thursday.

“Their service levels have decreased in tandem with the call volume increase,” said Natasha Mihal, a project manager for the controller’s office who worked on the annual report. “Their target is that they want to answer 90 percent” within that 10 second time frame.

The Department of Emergency Management, which employs more than 140 dispatchers and office staff, answered a monthly average of 72 to 83 percent of calls within ten seconds, falling short of the national 90 percent standard, the report said.

So the team from Google set out to find out why. The team analyzed the department’s monthly emergency call volumes and data from the computer-aided dispatch system between 2011 and 2015.

Google found the department answered 1.2 million calls in 2014, or 28 percent more than in 2011. “It’s clear that call volume is increasing and will continue to increase,” the study reads.

The reasons for the increase are complex, but the study points to three main reasons for it: Accidental calls, several calls for the same incident — almost everyone has a cellphone in San Francisco — and a growing number of incidents reported.

“They found that a large portion of the increase is coming from accidental dials of 911 as well as multiple calls either about the same incident or someone will dial in, hang up and call back again,” said Mihal.

“Everyone has cellphones,” Mihal said. The report seemed to agree, pointing to the nationwide increase in cellphone ownership and San Francisco’s population boom. More people with cellphones means more duplicate calls, according to the report.

The Google study recommended the department automate parts of its computer-aided dispatch system and callback system to weed out accidental callers.

Mihal said the department has hired additional staff and made operational changes in line with the recommendations. A representative for the Department of Emergency Management was not immediately available to comment.

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