News - Kane County

Problematic phone software causing surge in fake 911 calls in Kane County

Floods of accidental 911 calls are diverting the attention of Kane County emergency operators from true emergencies. The problem is caused by recent changes to the default setting of Android phones.

Bumpy travels and a recent Android phone software update continue to ignite an onslaught of bogus 911 calls to Kane County and other emergency departments. Users can solve the problem in seconds for most phones.

KaneComm Director Michelle Guthrie told a Kane County Board committee Thursday that her emergency operators saw a “dramatic increase” of 2,000 phone calls this June compared to June 2022.

In researching the surge, Guthrie tuned into a national upswing in what’s known as “abandoned calls.” That’s when a phone dials 911, but when the emergency operator answers, no one is on the other end. The problem for 911 telecommunicators is they must follow up on every call, even accidental dials or if someone hangs up.

“We have to make sure there’s no absolute emergency,” Guthrie said.

In one recent 8-hour shift, KaneComm fielded 25 such bogus or abandoned calls.

“When you have other emergencies going on at the same time, that’s quite an increase,” Guthrie said.

Kane County isn’t alone. There are numerous reports from around the country, including in nearby Wisconsin and Minnesota, showing a wave of abandoned emergency calls resulting in wasted time for 911 operators and diversion from genuine emergencies.

The problem, according to Guthrie and a report by the National Emergency Number Association, followed a software update for Android phones in May that changed the default setting for the Emergency SOS feature on some devices. The SOS activates when the phone’s power button is pressed rapidly five times.

Guthrie said the button mashing can occur during any jarring activity, such as placing a phone in a cup holder while mowing a lawn or attaching it to a bike or off-road vehicle while riding.

There are new software updates for the phones to fix the problem. The update adds a countdown to the SOS feature that will prompt a call to 911 if the power button is pressed rapidly five times. If the user doesn’t interact with the phone to follow through on the emergency call, the device will revert to whatever screen was active on the phone before the prompt.

Guthrie said the emergency call features on cellphones are “extremely useful.” She’s not advocating for anyone to disable the SOS features of either Android or iPhones. But she called on better education about the features and what to do if an accidental call to 911 occurs.

“Don’t hang up,” Guthrie said. “Stay on the line. Our telecommunicators have to make sure you do not have an emergency. If you do hang up, we will end up calling you back anyway.”

Simply informing the emergency operator that the call was accidental will save a lot of time for the operators, prevent unnecessary emergency dispatches and free up resources for true emergency calls.

James Fuller - Daily Herald Media Group

James Fuller is a reporter for the Daily Herald