Today's Lesson In Unintended Consequences: Safety Mandates That May Reduce Safety

Via the WSJ (emphasis added)

Nomar may be the most extreme example of a problem plaguing 911 response centers nationwide: false emergency calls made from cellphones that no longer have a contract or prepaid minutes with a wireless carrier and so can avoid being tied to a user. Under federal rules these disabled phones, which can't make ordinary calls, must retain the ability to dial emergency numbers.

Abuse of these phones has become enough of a concern that many 911 officials and some in the telecom industry are urging the Federal Communications Commission to shut off or phase out the emergency feature in the interest of public safety.

In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, anonymous dialers have made tens of thousands of false 911 calls since 2007—with Nomar alone believed responsible for over 30,000. (Call-center operators can detect a disabled phone in part because no phone number shows up on their screen.)

During a 24-hour period on Thanksgiving Day 2012, dispatchers at the city's Department of Emergency Management reported 1,527 false 911 calls—more than one a minute. They believed all the calls came from just five phones, based in part on the cellphone towers from which the calls were connected...

At the root of the problem is a 1997 FCC requirement that all carriers include emergency-dialing capability on cellphones whether they have working service or not. Back then, 911 centers supported the feature as a potential lifeline.

"Cell service was still a new thing," said Trey Forgety, director of government affairs at the National Emergency Number Association, a trade group of 911 centers in Washington. "We wanted people in dire straits to have reliable access to 911."


  1. FelineCannonball:

    Or maybe it's just an indication that regulations need to be intelligent and responsive to changing circumstances and eventual observations of unintended consequences. The original concern that people wouldn't be able to call 911 if they run out of minutes on a prepaid phone, seems like a valid concern. And it's probably still valid.

    Seems like the current problem revolves around prank calls or unintended calls being made by unidentifiable phones. I can imagine a variety of solutions.

  2. Matthew Slyfield:

    Government regulations, whether statutory or agency rules are rarely intelligent and never responsive to change.

  3. MingoV:

    The situation shows that well-intentioned legislation can backfire. It also shows the complete lack of ethics among a slice of our population. These false calls have the same effect as shooting the tires of every ambulance, fire truck, and police car.

    To me, the solution to the 911 problem is simple. No calls from anonymous phones. Everyone must use registered phones. Those who claim they cannot afford the monthly fee can find a charity to support them. As to the false call makers, they'll switch to some other way to prove they have power by wrecking some other part of society.

  4. Rick C:

    Wow, that's a remarkably statist position: a few people abuse the system, so we crack down on everyone.
    That's the sort of logic people use who want to ban guns: a criminal did something illegal, so we'll punish legal gun owners.

  5. Rick C:

    It seems like hunting down the people responsible for this would be a better use of time. You know what? If it takes 50 cops running a dragnet to catch this Nomar guy by triangulation, I'm OK with that, at least compared to making everyone in the country register their phone numbers.

  6. FelineCannonball:

    I'm reasonably sure the phones already have identifiers with the phone companies. They just aren't really tied to people or location and 911 operators may not have access to the identifier.

    It would be nice to be able to just drop a phone from the service after prank or repetitive unintentional calls, regardless of payment status. Maybe shunt them to a polite "go fuck yourself" message. However, the phone companies would probably love to have those seniors with emergency-only phones get monthly plans.

  7. Rick C:

    Frankly, killing the EMEI of a repeat pranker is probably the simplest and best thing to do. This Nomar guy probably wouldn't have made 30K calls if every (say) 5th call cost him a buck (to buy another used phone).

    For seniors, at least low-income ones, there is already a plan for that: whatever it was that Obamaphones turned into (can't be bothered to look up the program name, but it's not really important anyway.) My retired mother-in-law got a notification about it a couple years ago, but she already has a prepaid phone and a landline so she skipped the freebie even though she was actually qualified.

  8. obloodyhell:

    It seems rather obvious that the issue here is the notion that a phone which is in contact with the carrier does not have the capacity to tell the carrier whose number it was attached to at some point in the past. This does not seem hard to fix, if it needs to be actually "fixed" at all. Methinks someone is just not doing their job right.

  9. Incunabulum:

    Except that its not - its a way to deal with people who abuse the system by a far less *statist* method. The other option is to either hire more police (at great expense) to track these people down or put in place legislation for the 'proper' disposal of cellphones - with huge penalties for the last known owner of a da-activated phone that was misused if its wasn't disposed of according to regulation.
    Sometimes you have to face up to the fact that people like this is why we can't have nice things.

  10. Incunabulum:

    The EMEIC is unique to the phone - the phone number is assigned to an EMIEC by the phone company and can be changed at will.
    In any case, knowing the last subscriber's phone number isn't going to help here - these are phones where the service subscription has lapsed and are either lost or upgraded and someone else has gotten ahold of the phone/

  11. marque2:

    Problem is you never know when that prank phone will be picked up by someone legitimate to call 911.

    Something Interesting, by the end of May some municipalities will allow you to text 911. Don't know why that took so long. It would be valuable in situations where silence is critical.

  12. FelineCannonball:

    Maybe we can phase in phones that blow up on the fifth prank call. The emergency responders can triangulate on the smoke.

  13. Curtis:

    We see the same thing in maritime distress calls over bridge to bridge radio channel 16. Coast Guard gets dozens of fake Mayday calls every day. Sometimes they launch search and rescue assets and sometimes they don't. Listening to the Coast Guard sector operator interrogate boats claiming distress can sometimes be amusing. Alarming, but amusing.
    There is a way to track these people down and when it becomes convenient, the various ways will be put into play. In the meantime, think of the 911 operators responding to VOIP calls from internet phone calls off iPads and such.

  14. Matthew Slyfield:

    And sometimes you have to face up to the fact that there is always a price to pay if you want to have nice things.

  15. TM:

    There is of course another option (there always is). We can rate limit 911 calls from anonymous phones. The article seems to identify two different problems, serial pranksters who will not be detered from registering a phone (unless you plan on banning trac phones, they'll simply use a fake name) and mass calling 911 over a short period of time. Both could be solved by cell carriers implementing a rate limiting scheme with serviceless phones. A maximum of X calls to 911 from the same mobile device within a given short time period (as determined based on studies of 911 calls in emergencies) and a separate daily/weekly/monthly limit (based on studies of long term emergencies say, someone trapped somewhere). I have a firewall on a computer that essentially does the same thing, attempt to connect 3 times without success and you're banned for 5 minutes, every attempt and failure after that exponentially ratchets up the ban time.

  16. Rick C:

    But if you actually find a boat that made a distress call, you can charge them--and the Coast Guard does, and it's a lot of money. I bet you don't find much recidivism there.

    I would be perfectly fine with seizing the boat of repeat offenders who don't pay, too, because that's a quantitatively different thing than enforcing a blanket registration.

  17. marque2:

    Also if you pay cash for the phone and it is one of those non contract jobs and it was always filled with cards purchased with cash - there is no identifying trace.

  18. Incunabulum:

    The problem is that MB radios are widely available and fake distress calls are often from shore (or near enough - jump onto someone's boat and connect the battery).
    Not so much from vessels that are underway.

  19. Garrett Kajmowicz:

    I volunteer as an EMT. We can't even keep medical facilities like nursing homes from calling 911 improperly. (I don't mean the patients, I mean the staff). This is annoying, for sure, though I'd argue that if you don't have enough capacity to handle a few pranksters you don't have enough capacity to handle a surge in volume from a mass incident.