Butt Calls, Eye-Rollers, Disbelievers and Scowlers

March 15, 2012
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.


I can think of a few other ways to describe these calls, but most involve four-letter words that would have gotten my mouth washed out with soap as a child. Disbeliever calls are those where you just cannot believe the person is calling 9-1-1 with their particular type of problem. An example, (again found on YouTube so now this caller’s amazingly bad choices and subsequent arrest are now common knowledge) is the Connecticut man who called 9-1-1 for “a legal question” on “how much trouble you could get into for one plant…only a seedling.” You can hear the disbelief in the operator’s voice as she handles this call. I think it’s funny to note that the news report states after his arrest, he left the courthouse, turned around and stuck both his middle fingers up at the dispatchers. Guess he was in disbelief too. Personally, I had a similar call where a gentleman wanted us to come out because he had paid for some drugs and didn’t receive them. After a few clarifying questions from me and gentle reminders of who he was calling he decided he would just cut his losses and go home.


Some citizens know how to play the system. They know the keywords to get an officer out fast in any situation and they often don’t hide what they are doing. But, due to policies and protocols, there is nothing an operator can do in these situations except for play the role of the pawn and send out units usually Code 3. I guarantee there is a scowl on your face the entire time you’re punching those buttons. For me, the call that fell into this category most solidly was a loud music complaint. Her neighbor was having a party, lots of loud talking, drinking and carrying on. She had called numerous times and I’m sure it was annoying, but it was a busy night and officers were tied up on other calls (if I remember correctly there had been a sexual assault and a shooting nearby). When I explained that the officers were handling other emergencies and would come out as soon as they were available, there was a pause and then in what I would describe as a completely sarcastic, dead-pan voice she stated, “Well they have a gun. Yup, they just fired a shot.” I scowled the whole time as I followed procedure and took officers off other calls and sent them lights and siren to her house knowing what they would find - lots of loud talking, drinking and carrying on. Disposition--No gun. No shots fired. Included in this category are those calls that include statements such as, “Lady, Just send me an officer…”

As public safety telecommunications operators, we handle a lot of calls. In my department, we averaged 250 emergency and non-emergency calls per shift. That’s a lot of calls in a career. Many are true emergencies, but some are butt calls, eye-rollers, disbelievers and scowlers. Thanks to YouTube and the public’s fascination with those who call in for emergency services we can experience not only our own calls but those from around the world as well.

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About The Author:

Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. Her credits include Law Enforcement Technology, Police, Law and Order, Police Times, Beyond the Badge, Michigan State Trooper, Michigan Snowmobiler Magazine and Chief of Police. She writes two columns a month for Officer.com. Michelle worked for the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for almost eight years. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. Currently, Michelle works as the Administrative Coordinator at Jasper Mountain a residential psychiatric facility for children. In her spare time, she enjoys being the fundraising coordinator for the Lane Area Ferret Shelter & Rescue, playing her bass, working on her young adult novel Desert Ice and raising her two sons in a small town in Oregon.

About the Author

Michelle Perin

Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. 

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