Lack of human factors = more of your tax dollars at “work”

I live in Raleigh, NC. Our area code has always been a little problematic for the nationwide 911 emergency system – it is 919. But at least until now, dialing the 919 for a local call was optional. Looks like we’re finally big enough for ten digit dialing and we can expect to pay the price in our public safety system.  Check out this email from the Director of Emergency Communications, particularly the part about dispatching officers every 7.5 minutes to investigate hang-ups:

I am sure by now that you have seen or heard about some of the impact that the new 10 digit dialing requirement has made upon our 9-1-1 center. Unfortunately, we are almost three weeks downstream from this implementation, and are seeing few signs of improvement.

Neither the 9-1-1 center, the city, or the local telephone carriers are responsible for selecting area codes. They are distributed according to a national plan. “Overlays” are added when a region begins to run out of numbers in their original pool; in this case 9-1-9. Unfortunately, with the similarity between 9-1-9 and 9-1-1, our agency has seen this issue in the past, as some of our citizens have utilized 10 digit dialing for some time. The current impact on our staff – and on law enforcement – is that on our peak days we are dispatching officers to investigate hang up calls once every seven and a half minutes. Of course, this is a daily average, meaning that at peak times the impact is even more severe. Plus, we only dispatch calls that we can’t resolve another way. Many people who misdial don’t realize they have until we answer. Others hang-up, but answer when we call them back. In such cases sending an officer is not required, so the total number of calls we receive in error far exceeds those dispatched.

As Director of Emergency Communications, I am asking for your help. We have identified that a majority of such calls come from either senior citizens or business telephones. In the first case, confusion over the proper procedures seems to be the norm.  After 40 years, folks now have to dial 10 digits just to talk to their neighbor. We’ve had callers tell us they thought they had to now dial 9-1-1 before calling in our area, and others ask if they needed to dial 9-1-9 before they called 9-1-1. If you have an elderly friend, relative, or neighbor, I’d like to personally ask you to take the time to make sure they understand to carefully dial “9-1-9” when required. I believe that with some patience and understanding we can make significant inroads.

With regard to business telephones, the issue is a little more complex, and may in some cases even involve the need to dial “9” to get an outside line, followed by the unnecessary “1” before dialing the area code. Whatever the reason, it really boils down to just taking a few extra seconds to make sure of the numbers you’re dialing. Whether you work at a local business, or own one, can I please also count on you to assure that your co-workers use due care when calling? This is a very serious issue and takes resources away from dealing with actual emergencies.

So, to summarize:

  • There is a lack of understanding when to use 10-digit dialing.
  • Being “careful” is not going to fix this problem.
  • The added traditions for businesses to dial “9” to get out adds to the problem (NC State moved to a dial “7” system, presumably for this reason).
  • Those with a lifetime of 7-digit experience, and presumably the least likely to have numbers pre-programmed into a cell phone, make the most errors.

The issues here are fascinating, yet predictable. I don’t know if there is a perfect answer, since changing the long-term ill-chosen area code would be confusing (although my home town in Alabama has gone through 3 such changes in the last couple of decades – from 205 to 334 to 251!). But it is clear that we are penalized by the similarity of our numbers to a national standard for emergency calls. I applaud the tone of the email, which is not blameful – just desperate for a solution. However, I have great skepticism that advising “due care” in dialing will make any difference at all.

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About Anne McLaughlin

Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC

One Response to Lack of human factors = more of your tax dollars at “work”

  1. Anne June 20, 2012 at 10:07 am #

    Yup, still a problem! New article in the News & Observer: http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/06/19/2148068/area-code-mistakes-still-jam-triangle.html

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