​​​How and why to avoid an accidental 911 call

​April 26, 2021

A smartphone with the emergency call option on the lock screen

If there's one thing we've learned about smart phones, it's that touch screens can be…well, touchy. If it hasn't happened to you, you've probably heard about it—your cat walks on the screen and turns your phone off, or your toddler grabs it while you're not looking and accidentally calls your boss. It can even happen in your pocket, when you somehow end up dialing whoever is at the top of your contacts list – as anyone whose name begins with an A can attest.

Most of these accidents are harmless. But more and more, people are unknowingly pressing just the right combination of buttons to activate the built-in SOS function on their phones, resulting in an accidental call to 911. Both iPhone and Android have this feature, and it's an issue that Minnesota public safety answering points (PSAPs) have been dealing with over the past year.

It sounds harmless enough, but here's the problem: anytime a dispatcher has to answer an accidental 911 call, it takes their time and attention away from 911 callers who have true emergencies and need help. Holiday weekends are especially a concern. Over the 2020 4th of July weekend, dispatchers in Crow Wing County reported receiving over 100 SOS calls from people who had inadvertently activated the SOS feature on their devices. Another PSAP reported that a man called 911 using this feature on his wife's phone. When he hung up and the dispatcher called him back, he apologized, saying he had no idea that this feature even existed.

Just remember that if you do accidentally call 911, don't hang up. Dispatchers will just call you back anyway to make sure you're okay. And if they can't contact you, they may even send first responders to check on you. Instead, stay on the line, tell the dispatcher it was a mistake, and explain that there's no emergency. On most phones (and smartwatches – yes, it happens with them, too), you can disable this feature using the settings app. But public safety officials don't recommend it, because that makes one less way to contact 911 if necessary.

April is National 911 Education Month, so it's a good time to review all the ways you can contact 911 if you have an emergency. There is of course the traditional call on your phone, but remember that if you can't call, you can also text to 911. And if there is any disruption of 911 services, it's helpful to have the 10-digit, 24-hour number for the PSAP of the county you're in. Write them down or save them in your phone for the counties you're in the most.

The more you know about the various ways to contact 911, the s​afer​ you'll be. Others will be safer, too, when dispatchers​ can focus on the true emergencies.