Children dialing 911 causes backlog at Travis Co. dispatch

911 call center (KXAN photo)
911 call center (KXAN photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Travis County Sheriff’s Office emergency dispatchers are seeing a dangerous trend: children dialing their 911 line.

Dispatchers say many of the calls are coming from children who are playing with smartphones and they are cutting into response times. Now, they are asking parents to step in and stop it from happening.

“You can hear a child and you can kind of tell the difference between a child playing and maybe, like, a woman screaming,” said TCSO Communications Supervisor Melanie Rhodes.

Dispatchers are already short staffed, especially during the overnight and early morning hours. Each call has to be investigated on its own merit. If someone hangs up, dispatchers are required to call them back. In some cases, an officer has to drive out to find the location.

“When we get a call on 911 we try to start an officer to that location as soon as possible,” Rhodes said. “If it’s a child on the phone and they can’t confirm the location then the officer’s driving around aimlessly to see where they are.”

And, that takes time away from real emergencies as callers who are on hold longer than two minutes usually hang up, she said.

“If we’re using our time on the open-line calls and the abandoned calls that aren’t true emergencies then the true emergencies are going into queue,” said Rhodes. “It’s lowering our grade of service and our response times to citizens that really need help.”

The dispatch center has a goal of answering 90 percent of emergency calls within 10 seconds. It has received more than 40,000 hang-up calls over the last three years.

Dispatchers said they can hear the difference between a child playing and a true victim screaming for help. When kids call, sometimes they ask them to pass the phone to their parent.

“We tell them, ‘Please be sure you don’t give your phone to your child, you’re calling 911, we need to keep this line open for emergencies and we’re trying to deal with your child,'” said Rhodes.

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