in Futurist, X-Geek

Phone numbers and 911 hangups

Someone in my office misdialed 911 this morning, causing the Morrisville PD to needlessly dispatch an officer. As far as I know it’s the first time this has happened at my work. The officer who responded almost certainly had better things to be doing than chasing down someone who fat-fingered a telephone number. That was one officer who wasn’t available for other, more serious calls. That’s one incoming call to 911 that tied up an emergency line and a dispatcher needlessly.

Dialing mistakes have always happened, of course, but the Triangle area has gotten hit particularly hard since the new “overlay” area code (984? I had to look it up) was introduced. The emergency call centers in Raleigh, Cary, Durham, and Orange County have taken tens of thousands of misdialed 911 calls since this change took place this year.

Says Barry Furey, Raleigh’s Emergency Communications Director, “If you dial 9-1-1 incorrectly, it is imperative that you stay on the line. The only apparent cure is careful dialing. We can’t fix this issue without the public’s help.”

I have an idea: let’s do away with numerical phone numbers. There are only so many digits a human being can remember. Frankly, I have so many numbers to remember that I constantly refer to my electronic address books. What’s more, 99% of all phone calls are now routed by computer. Mobile phone growth long ago eclipsed land line growth. We will be drowning in area codes, misdialed 911 calls, and general chaos if we don’t update our antiquated ways.

I have a VoIP phone system at home which would allow others to dial me using an email-address-like string. In fact, I could literally use my email address as my phone number. Imagine how useful the Internet would be if one had to type in the IP address of the website one wanted to visit, rather than the human-friendly domain name.

It’s time we stopped tying phone numbers to places and tie them to people instead. When I call someone, I’m not calling to reach an empty house, I want to reach the person I’m calling. I’ve set up my phone system so that calls follow me wherever I go. The number reaches me, not my home, office, or other places I spend my time. Most people use their mobile phones this way as well.

Other than the burst of oversight in the 1980s that led to the (short-lived) breakup of the Bell monopoly, the federal government seems to be reluctant to police the phone companies. For instance, the FTC’s solution in the battle against is robocalls is to pay someone else to figure it out. Don’t count on the government to offer any guidance towards solving our phone number muddle, and certainly don’t count on the phone companies agreeing to it themselves.

Yet, this is what it will likely take if we hope to head off a future of 12 or 15-digit dialing: a government-imposed deadline similar to the country’s recent transition to digital television. In the meantime, good luck trying to remember the increasing pile of numbers we need to communicate with each other.