Fact Check

Dying Phones Call 911

Some cordless phones call 911 by themselves when their batteries run low.

Published Dec 31, 1998


Claim:   Some older model cordless phones call 911 by themselves when their batteries are dying.

Status:   True.

Origins:   It's not enough that crooks have been known to unwittingly call 911 — sometimes just the phones themselves summon assistance:

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

Cell phone

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.

Although the newer phones are not supposed to dial randomly, under special circumstances they have been known to do so, as one of our readers reported:

[Collected via e-mail, 2003]

My mother just a few weeks ago dropped here cell phone that she held by pinching the phone to her shoulder with her head into a pot full of water that she was washing. So was upset that it was now ruined. I told her to let it dry out and after a few days we plugged it in to charge it up. It worked fine for one day then failed and she set it aside and bought a new cell phone. About two weeks later we get a message on the answer machine from our local police department from an officer saying vaguely he wanted to talk to her about phone abuse.

My mom convinced that I was hacking on the internet called the officer back wondering what has happened. It turns out the cell phone had been calling a stranger's phone number every few hours at random times for the last two weeks straight and he was very disturbed. He told the police he thought it was crank calls from his neighbor's kids. My mom told the police officer what happened to the cell phone and that she would pull the battery from the phone.

After searching for a allen wrench to take the cover off the phone and not finding one she placed the phone in glass of water.

All seems well now but she is afraid to take this possessed phone out of the glass of water, and she now waters it like a house plant.

Barbara "diving bell" Mikkelson

Last updated:   2 January 2005

  Sources Sources:

    Lee, Michael.   "Low Batteries Cause Old Cordless Phones to Repeatedly Call 911."

    Fort Worth Star-Telegram.   15 September 1996   (p. B3).

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