Butt Calls, Eye-Rollers, Disbelievers and Scowlers

Law Enforcement and other emergency dispatchers have to listen to a lot just to determine whether or not the call to 911 is actually an emergency. Sometimes it's funny; sometimes it's not.

More and more, it seems 9-1-1 is becoming public. Not publicly owned or controlled; it’s always been like that because we’re public servants. Not publicly available, although that’s increased too with the ability for landlines, cell phones and computers to access 9-1-1 services through talk and text. What I mean is publicly listened to. Not a tragedy goes by now without a news clip appearing several days later playing the 9-1-1 call live. What used to be things I only heard in my headset, I can now hear from my television, radio or computer speakers. And, I don’t have to catch the “tragic, humorous, ridiculous, fill-in-the-blank call” right then. They are archived on media sites, as well as, the ultimate voyeuristic site, YouTube.

After a recent trip exploring my fellow telecommunications operator’s work on YouTube (and after a quick prayer of gratitude I had been lucky enough not to be from a time when all calls went public), I started thinking about the types of calls we get and some of the reactions they can create.

Butt Calls / Pocket Dials

Toronto (Ontario, Canada) Police Department has established a campaign (also on YouTube) called “Lock It Before You Pocket”. The ad states that 2,100 pocket dial calls are made per week to 9-1-1.  Also known as butt calls, these calls give the operator front row seats to everything from silence to conversations to musical concerts. One of my favorite archived calls (you know those calls that are saved for years and played over and over for operators both new and old) was a gentleman who presumably butt dialed while driving (not an unusual occurrence since so many of my fellow-city-dwellers spent hours locked in traffic each day).  During his call, he graced the original operator (and dozens since then) with his rendition of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, aka the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey complete with all the dun-dun-dun-DUN-DAAAAAAAAs you could ever want. Although butt calls can be amusing, especially if they include a snippet of conversation between two people discussing something private, they can also be frustrating when it’s a super-busy summer Friday night and the calls just keep coming and coming. As operators, we’re required to listen to enough of the call to establish it is just a butt dial and not a terrified 15 year-old girl hiding in the closet scared to breathe lest she be heard by the rapist/murderer who just climbed in the window.


Many of these calls begin with, “This isn’t an emergency, but…” Seriously, if there’s a “but” involved, it might have been worth the time to look up the non-emergency number. On the other hand, I found many of these calls just met the minimum criteria for being an appropriate 9-1-1 call (just barely). A good example is the “Missing Orange Juice” call. A man calls 9-1-1 from an Oregon McDonald’s because they messed up his order and now his brother is crying because they forgot to put in the orange juice (I can visualize all the eye-rolling that just occurred from my colleagues). Although the premise is ridiculous, what the situation came down to was the caller and his family were refusing to leave the drive-through and the employee had also called the police. So, in essence you had a trespassing/unwanted guest/verbal dispute call that needed police assistance to rectify. They don’t call officers keepers of the peace for nothing.


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