Many 911 calls come from kids playing with deactivated cell phones

ARAPAHOE COUNTY, Colo. - Parents trying to find ways to keep their young children entertained are being discouraged from giving their kids old cell phones.

When a cell phone is deactivated, the phone itself can still call 911 as long as the battery has power.

"This particular communications center answered approximately 69,000 911 calls last year. And of that 69,000 approximate number, almost 11 percent were from deactivated cell phones," said Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office communications manager Cathy Raley. "Just a little over 8,000."

That's an average of about 20 phone calls each day.

In this example, a child dialed 911 from a deactivated cell phone. When the dispatcher picked up, the child handed the phone to his dad.

"Hello, I'm sorry," said the dad.

"They're playing with a disconnected cell phone aren't they?" said the dispatcher. "The 911 still works on those, so that's not a good toy for the kids, OK?"

"Oh, I'm sorry," said the dad.

"The dispatchers are busy trying to confirm that there is no problem at that particular phone call. In the meantime, somebody who is having an actual emergency, who is trying to dial in, may be delayed in being answered because we're already on a 911 call, " said Cathy Raley, Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office Communications Manager.

"A lot of times there have been times the children have said, you know, 'Mommy, daddy, somebody on the phone wants to talk to you,' and the parents think that they're playing because they don't think that the phone works," said Raley. "They're generally surprised, and they don't realize or did not have the knowledge that deactivated cell phones, as long as there's a battery charge, can dial 911."

"When you get a call from a deactivated cell phone, there's no way to track down where it's coming from?" asked 7NEWS reporter Marshall Zelinger.

"Not through technology, no," said Raley.

When a deactivated cell phone calls 911, there is little information that pops up on the screen for a dispatcher to identify who is calling or from where. The phone number shows up with a "911" area code, which tells dispatchers the call is from a deactivated cell phone.

"This is highly frustrating for dispatchers, when they have to deal with a call like this because there's absolutely nothing that they can do until they get a location to send help," said Raley.

When dispatchers receive a 911 call from a landline, the dispatcher's computer automated system shows the phone number and the home address.

When dispatchers receive a 911 call from a cell phone, the system shows the phone number, the address of the cell tower that received the call and in most cases, GPS coordinates to hone in on the caller's location.

When dispatchers receive a 911 call from a deactivated cell phone, the only detailed information shown on the system is the cell tower location.

"Does that help you at all?" asked Zelinger.

"No. Not unless they're right by the cell tower," said Raley. "Unless we can actually talk to somebody on the other end of the line and get a location, there's no way for us to track that."

It's not always a kid who calls 911 from a deactivated cell phone.

About nine seconds into this call, someone screams, 'Ow,' twice.

"Sometimes the things that we hear in the background can be very disturbing," said Raley.

It's difficult to tell if there's a struggle or children playing with the phone. The call lasts 1:42 before being disconnected.

"Unfortunately, until somebody gets on that phone and tells us where they're at and what's going on, we literally can do nothing except listen to what is going on and hope that somebody comes to the phone," said Raley.

It's not just an Arapahoe County problem.

7NEWS requested data from Denver and Douglas Counties as well.

In 2013, Denver County received 509,000 911 emergency calls. Of those, more than 45,000 were from deactivated cell phones. That's about nine percent, almost one out of every 10 calls to 911.

In Douglas County, 70,000 emergency calls were made in 2013, with nearly 5,000 dialed from deactivated cell phones. That's about seven percent of all 911 calls.

In another Arapahoe County example, Raley remembered a child who called 911 repeatedly from a deactivated cell phone to say that a Burger King was on fire.

Using the address of the cell phone tower where the call was received, the dispatcher sent deputies on a wild goose chase.

"We took the location as close as we could, for where we thought that the call was coming in from, and we did send deputies to check on the most nearest Burger King. Since that was the only phone call we received, we determined that there probably wasn't a fire, but we still had to go check," said Raley. "(It) ties up the resource of a deputy having to go check on something that's not real, but because we received that call we still have to send them."

"Is there anything that you know that you can do to a deactivated cell phone that you could still give it a kid to play with and have it not call 911?" asked Zelinger.

"Absolutely. Take the battery out," said Raley. "Take the battery out and you can hand it to them and they can play all they want."

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