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911 pocket dialing tying up Milwaukee dispatch center

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MILWAUKEE -- Dispatch officials say tens of thousands of emergency calls are not emergencies at all. In fact, often there's no one at the other end of the line. "Pocket dialing" 911 has gotten so bad, police and other leaders want to change the law.

You could call it an emergency problem in the emergency dispatch center. Officials say cell phones are "pocket dialing" Milwaukee's 911 Emergency Communications Center at an alarming rate. That means 911 staff is being leaned on and wasting time.

No one expected it to be quite this bad when the Milwaukee Communications Center took on the area's cell phone emergency calls back in April.

Captain Gary Gacek says every time this happens, a 911 operator is required to call back. If no one answers, the operator must call back again.

"That delays an emergency response for somebody who needs police or fire. That's a threat to public safety," Gacek said.

So far this year, Milwaukee emergency dispatchers are on pace to get 105,000 pocket dials. One person even butt-dialed 911 136 times!

The Milwaukee Communications Center is slated to take on even more cell phone carriers in the near future.

Officials say some 911 calls come from children playing with cell phones.

"We've had a few occasions where a child or a teenager has called us 20 or 30 times," Gacek said.

Right now, there's no law allowing fines for pocket dialing -- only for international 911 abuse. However, Milwaukee police and some Milwaukee aldermen want to change that. They are working on an ordinance that would allow fines after the third pocket dial to 911.

The problem isn't only with new phones, but also some phones that don't even have a service provider. As long as a phone is charged, the federal government mandates it be able to call 911 in an emergency, even though the phone can't dial anyone else.

If the trend continues, Gacek says not only will real emergency calls be threatened, he'll have to staff the dispatch center requesting more overtime. Gacek is asking people to supervise young children and not give them cell phones to play with. Gacek also encourages people to lock their keypad and not program 911 into speed dial.

Plans are to introduce an ordinance and fine this September.

Milwaukee police say the pocket dialing problem is not only happening in Milwaukee, but is a nationwide problem.

If Milwaukee institutes fines and citations for repeated pocket dialing to 911, it would be one of the first in the country.