San Francisco recently reported that its 911 system has experienced an incredible increase in calls since 2011. Was it due to its growing population? Or over-reporting? Or maybe just over-parenting? Nah: It was butt dials.
A few days ago at the Code for America Summit, a team of researchers at Google published the results of a comprehensive report analyzing data from San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management. The research dealt with many questions about the changing nature of San Francisco and its infrastructure, but one of the most peculiar findings was the role of the accidental call–eg the butt dial–in the city’s emergency response system.
San Francisco’s emergency operators use two codes, “000” and “913,” to identify calls as either “unknown” or “miscellaneous.” These are not only the most commonly-used codes, but analysis by Google’s team showed that 34 percent of those calls were accidental in 2014. Overall, the research shows as much as a third of all wireless calls are butt dials (regular landline phones have a high rate of accidental calls, too, at 37 percent in Google’s sessions spent shadowing operators).
Once the operator picks up, even if he or she hears what sounds like a butt dial, they have to call back and leave a message. That takes time–the average process takes one minute and 14 seconds–and leaves fewer operators available to answer real calls. It’s also a huge drain on their focus: 39 percent of the operators that Google talked to said butt dials constituted the biggest “pain point” in their jobs, and a full 80 percent called it the most time consuming aspect of their jobs.
These butt calls are putting an unsafe strain on the system, not unlike the strain an actual butt puts on an unsteady lawn chair that’s been on the deck all winter.
Google says this is “a unique challenge” for 911 operators, but also points out that this is a ubiquitous problem in other cities: New York City recently found that as many as 40 percent of emergency calls were accidental, too. It’s hard to imagine there isn’t a solution to this problem, or at least a potential one, in software. Maybe Google can spearhead an industry-wide push to make mobile OSes butt-proof.
Contact the author at kelsey@Gizmodo.com.