It got to the point where Donnell Ballard's neighbors would see the firetrucks or police cars arriving at his west Fort Worth apartment complex and say, "Must be going to Donnell's."
For weeks, authorities were getting 911
calls from Ballard's apartment, sometimes twice a day or more. Police and fire officials thought he was playing a prank. Ballard thought the police had a grudge against him. Finally, a firefighter found the culprit: an old cordless phone with low batteries.
Despite a ruling by the Federal Communications Commission five years ago, operators across the country still come across cordless phones that malfunction and dial 911, said Nancy Branson, a spokeswoman for the Tarrant County 911 district. "What happens with cordless phones is there's a kind of chatter between the handset and the base," she said. When the batteries get low, the digits become more random, and they sometimes combine into 911.
The phones have been known to call 911 when no one is home, and even to seize phone lines when homeowners were making other calls. No one is sure how many false 911 calls are caused by malfunctioning cordless phones, but police and firefighters lose valuable time every day chasing false calls.
The problem was so common that the FCC began requiring cordless-phone makers in 1991 to install circuitry that keeps the base of the phone from dialing a number unless the handset first transmits a security code. That has helped reduce the number of false 911 calls, but operators occasionally get bogus calls from older phones, Branson said.
John Ramsey, director of government and public relations for the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, said the trade organization is preparing to re-examine
false 911 calls in light of the explosion of phone technology coming onto the market. "Any time you get new technology entering the market you're going to have some problems," he said. In the meantime, the best bet for cordless-phone owners is to follow the owner's manual and make sure the batteries stay charged, Branson said.