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Hung up on Hang ups - The Effects of Abandoned Calls

Author: Lisa Henderson, Senior Product Manager, TriTech Software Systems

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2018-03-09
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It’s no secret that communication centers nationwide are stretched to their limits and beyond. The ongoing cycle starts with staffing shortages that lead to mandatory call taker overtime just to meet minimum public safety requirements.

Throughout long, stressful days, call takers are constantly multi-tasking, rapidly switching between 9-1-1, CAD and radio systems while following several processes to provide critical assistance with each emergency situation. The pressure mounts and burnout is common, often resulting in staff turnover that leaves communication centers operating shorthanded.

Even when new call takers are brought on board, the lead time required for training means recruits are often filling freshly vacated seats. And the cycle starts again - you never get ahead, let alone attain full staff capacity!

Compounding the staff shortage is a steady increase in the number of 9-1-1 calls.


Wireless Calls Increase the Burden

Just this past year, industry statistics show that we’re past the tipping point where fewer than half the homes in U.S. have land lines. 

We’ve all seen the stats: 

  • Over 95% cell phone penetration in the US
  • 240,000,000 calls - The number of 9-1-1 calls now made nationwide
  • 92,000,000 calls from wireless devices – making up 80% of all 9-1-1 calls

The numbers get fuzzy beyond this, as there hasn’t been a recent national study on what percentage of calls are duplicate calls for the same incident, and what percentage are accidental mobile-device generated calls or true abandoned calls requiring a responder. There is even less data on staff resources consumed to clear the uniquely labeled calls.

The oft-quoted 2014 Google study indicated that 30% of wireless calls were misdials or abandoned calls. Moreover, it showed that call takers spent just under a minute and half clearing those calls. The data was gathered only in San Francisco. And since then, nationwide, the number of land lines has fallen, cell phone use has increased, and there are more devices capable of initiating 9-1-1 calls. 

Anecdotal information gleaned from industry professionals indicates abandoned call rates as high as 40% in some areas and widely varying protocol for clearing abandoned calls and misdials.


Protocols Vary Widely

Virtually every call center attempts to meet the recommended standard of at least one attempted call return to verify if assistance is truly needed, although making these calls are often put on the backburner, sometimes up to several hours, if inbound call volumes are high. Some make multiple attempts and rebid over a period of time. Others contact the cell phone provider to obtain subscriber information. Some, primarily in rural communities, adhere to a standard of dispatching a unit, tying up responder resources on what is often a wild goose chase.

Part of why this protocol yields such low clearance rates is that it fails to recognize how people interact with their phones. Most people will not answer a call from an unknown number, which is exactly how the returned call appears. Although a voicemail is left, very few people return the call to report that their 9-1-1 call was accidental.

Following these protocols diverts call takers from receiving 9-1-1 calls for two, five, even 15 minutes. 

It doesn’t matter if it’s a purse dial, pocket dial, duplicate call hang-up, or toddler playing with an inactive phone, one thing is certain, abandoned calls – and returning them – add to the multi-tasking overload and compound the short staffing issue.

TriTech built a model to assess how much call taker time is lost every year to managing abandoned calls. Even with very conservative assumptions of percentage of calls abandoned and the time it takes to clear a call, the figures are startling.

-via TriTech Software Systems

Nationwide, we lose well over 1 million call taker hours per year. On a local level, a mid-sized center receiving 200,000 calls per year could easily lose more than one full-time equivalent per year to managing misdials and abandoned calls.

When you’re already struggling to fill empty seats, diverting the equivalent of a single call taker to another task has a major impact on call center stats, as well as public safety.


Hiring isn’t the only solution to staff shortages

At almost every industry event I attend there are many conversations about how to tackle developing and retaining call taker talent. Without a doubt, these conversations, with resulting actions, need to continue.

Part of my role as a product manager is to assess how technology can help address significant industry challenges, such as staffing. Technology can’t put more call takers in seats; I wish it could. But it can help call takers by reducing tasks that divert them from their primary focus of answering 9-1-1 calls.

A city of San Francisco campaign to reduce erroneous/accidental calls into its 9-1-1 centers.  

In examining the abandoned call issue, a few innovative solutions rise to the surface.

  • The first is contacting abandoned callers via text instead of calling, which NG 9-1-1 complaint systems enable. The reason is simple: people are more likely to respond to a text than they are to answer a call or listen to voicemail. By using automation to send the text, call takers spend virtually no time on misdials. When the need for emergency assistance is confirmed, they’re immediately pulled back into the communications workflow.
    Recently I visited an agency that just implemented the TriTech solution with automated abandoned call return that triggers a text to the caller. They’ve more than tripled their rate of clearing abandoned calls, without call takers having to be diverted from processing inbound calls.
  • Public education is another tactic employed to reduce impact of abandoned calling. Supplement industry outreach programs, the city of San Francisco reportedly spent $250 million on a campaign to reduce calls into its 9-1-1 centers. In an expensive media market such as San Francisco, sustaining messaging at highly visible levels can be prohibitively expensive. Most communities don’t have the funding to support major efforts.
  • There’s also a call center that created a staff position of outbound call maker who doesn’t take inbound calls at all. While this eliminates the need for call takers to switch back-and-forth between inbound and outbound, it still consumes a valuable staff resource or requires an additional position.

It’s not just mobile phones - wearables have an immediate impact too

The good news is that cell phone manufacturers, service providers, and 9-1-1 are working together to identify and build safeguards to reduce the number of accidental 9-1-1 calls. The adoption of wearables and IoT could offset the benefits of this collaboration.

While advances in consumer technology yield significant public safety benefits, they challenge our industry in significant ways. CBS News recently reported  that devices in a Sacramento Apple repair facility have accidentally called 9-1-1 over 1,600 times. How this affects area call centers is staggering when you take into account the data I just reviewed on how increases in misdials compound staffing issues. It’s encouraging to note, however, collaborative work not only to resolve the current situation, but that lead to advances that restrict accidental 9-1-1 dialing in future devices. 


Already, our industry is feeling the impact of wearables and IoT.

  • The new Apple Watch has a safety feature called SOS. The wearer presses a side button for three seconds to open a screen with slider options of calling 9-1-1 or turning off power. Fat fingers combined with a small display has resulted in quite a few accidental emergency calls. And then there are those who accidentally make calls while absentmindedly fidgeting with their new watch.
  • An increasing number of heart monitors and alert necklaces and bracelets can call 9-1-1 automatically when certain biometric events are detected. Or the wearer can trigger a call when in distress, but sometimes accidentally place a call or make a call that should be routed to non-emergency assistance.
  • Already in test and limited use are traffic cams that trigger an emergency response when a collision occurs, cars that call 9-1-1 when an airbag deploys, and gunshot sensors that ‘listen’ then call for police when shots are fired.

Undoubtedly, these innovations save lives and make giant leaps forward in public safety. But they also add to the influx of accidental 9-1-1 calls that stretch already thin resources. Within this article, I touched only on how automating abandoned call return can make a small contribution to reducing the impact of our industry-wide staff shortage.

Aggressive recruiting and training needs to continue. Simultaneously, industry technology providers need to innovate on how to process inbound calls and data as fast or faster than consumer technologies that drive increased call volumes are introduced.



For more information, Tritech Software Systems held a recent webinar on the subject, which has been archived. View the webinar here.

Lisa Henderson, 9-1-1 Product Manager with TriTech Software Systems, is responsible for understanding market needs and developing product requirements for TriTech to match. Lisa has 20 years in the 9-1-1 industry with active participation in NENA and APCO. She is an ENP, a Working Group Co-Chair for multiple NENA initiatives relating to NG9-1-1, the TN APCO CCAM and is a frequent speaker at state and national association conferences. Connect with her at linked-in



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