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Worry Over VZW, Sprint Phones' 911 Alarm 362

[TheBORG] writes "An Austin woman who dialed 911 recently discovered what she said could be a fatal flaw in some new cell phones. She called for help when she arrived at some vacant property she owns in east Austin and found her security chain gone. She grabbed her new Verizon Wireless Casio G'zOne phone, which to her horror made an audible alarm when she called 911. Fearing vandals were still on the property, she hung up and hid, then put her hand over the earpiece and dialed again to muffle the sounds. A Verizon Wireless spokesperson says it's mandatory according to Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act. The FCC says Section 255 of the Telecommunications Code requires that phones let a caller know a 911 call is underway, but does not require an audible alarm. This thread on mentions that the alarm is present on new Sprint phones too."
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Worry Over VZW, Sprint Phones' 911 Alarm

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  • Well, duh. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by NeuralAbyss ( 12335 ) on Thursday November 22, 2007 @10:58AM (#21445983) Homepage
    There's her problem. She's using Verizon.

    Seriously.. are there /any/ mobile telcos in the US that don't suck in one way or another? I hated dealing with them for a month as a tourist, let alone for any longer period.
    • There isn't any one perfect carrier but T-Mobile and Helio come the closest (depends on what you want- if it's freedom to use a foreign phone and great customer service go T-Mobile; if it's Korean input or the Ocean go Helio).
      • Re:Well, duh. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by snowraver1 ( 1052510 ) on Thursday November 22, 2007 @11:26AM (#21446141)
        I wonder how much this really has to do with the carrier. Personally, I would think that it has more to do with the phone manufacturer. I know that my cell phone (LG Chocolate flip) makes a sound when you dial 911.

        I'm pretty sure that when the phone companies make a contract with a carrier, they just slap some crappy branding all over it, and (for me on Telus anyways) disable every feature that they possibly can, then charge you to use thier "service" (ie. disabling bluetooth file transfer so that you can't put ring tones on without paying them; Making it so that mp3's you store on the memory card cannot be copied to the phone internal memory, again so that they can bend you over for $3.00 + download fee for a ring tone.) I fucking HATE Telus.
        • Definitely the carrier. I've fooled around with the same phone here in China- it doesn't do that when 911 is dialed (stupid accident, I freaked, but then the call dropped before it fully connected- says a lot about network reliability in Shanghai, I suppose).
          • How would that work given in China it's 119? Something about the Chinese government hates the US that stupidly.
            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by jamar0303 ( 896820 )
              No, I'm used to using 112 for emergencies- it's the universal emergency number. Again, that was an accident when I put it down and let some kid fool with it. Of course, the call dropping before it could connect kind of shattered my confidence.
            • Re:Well, duh. (Score:5, Informative)

              by joto ( 134244 ) on Thursday November 22, 2007 @04:33PM (#21448315)

              How would that work given in China it's 119? Something about the Chinese government hates the US that stupidly.
              Yes, I agree that it's a good idea to know the local emergency number. But I disagree that having a different emergency number than 911 should indicate that you hate the US. In fact, most of the countries of the world, do not have 911 as emergency number. []. Moreover, many countries still "unofficially" route 911 to the local emergency number to take care of idiots, american tourists, and people raised on Hollywood movies (some of these categories may overlap).
        • by Fishead ( 658061 )
          That's why after 6 years of Telus, I switched to Rogers... only to find they are the same. They just don't care about customer service. What we need is some good European style competition!
          • Re:Well, duh. (Score:5, Interesting)

            by GreyPoopon ( 411036 ) <gpoopon@g[ ] ['mai' in gap]> on Thursday November 22, 2007 @01:36PM (#21447131)

            What we need is some good European style competition!

            Could you describe what, exactly, the European brands have to offer that solves our problem? Somehow, I don't think paying a whopping premium to call a mobile number from my landline is a solution. If that happens, I'll just stop calling mobile numbers altogether. I'm perfectly happy with T-Mobile except for the lack of a PDA-phone that performs well enough to make it usable, and the lack of UMTS. Both of those are supposed to be fixed early next year. I'd like to see any European plan that provides me with 700+ minutes of unlimited calling and a data plan for two PDA phones at less than $100 per month.

            I'm not taunting you or trying to argue. I just really want to know what it is the European competition offers that I'm missing.

            • Re:Well, duh. (Score:4, Interesting)

              by GuldKalle ( 1065310 ) on Thursday November 22, 2007 @03:49PM (#21448047)
              OK, i'll bite

              I'm a European (from Denmark, specifically) , and from what I know about how the US system works, I'm happy it's not that way here.

              First off, you are not charged if someone calls you (except if you're in another country).
              Second, there are no "branded" phones that artificially limits what you can do to it.
              Third, a lot of subsidized phones. My phone will cost me around 500$ with all expenses, and on top of that I get ~700min/month for six months (oh, and the max. vendor-lock time here is six months). If I were to buy the phone without subsidization it would have been ~$450

              For the landline premium, I agree it sucks. But instead of not calling to a mobile, most people just stop calling from a landline.
              Another downside is that data is quite expensive, about .50$/MB
              (btw, what do you mean by 700+ mins of unlimited calling?)
    • Not really... either you get good rates but horrible service outside your city, or you get great service anywhere in the US (its a big country) but get charged sky high rates for simple things such as texting.
    • Re:Well, duh. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by moosesocks ( 264553 ) on Thursday November 22, 2007 @11:09AM (#21446057) Homepage
      Well, yes. Verizon is generally crap.

      However, in this case, their incompetence is borderline criminal. They need to push out a mandatory firmware update that removes this behavior immediately, or issue a recall. This comes to mind as being *extremely* dangerous.
      • Absolutely. You've just got to wonder what sort of idiot did the requirements analysis for this sort of functionality.

        I mean, sure, companies try to cover their arse from the FCC.. but wouldn't an ordinary person think "hang on.. we might be sued if the alarm goes off when a violent intruder hears a customer calling 911!"? I'd go as far to say it's beyond borderline criminal, it's outright malicious.
      • Re:Well, duh. (Score:5, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 22, 2007 @12:00PM (#21446397)
        Unfortunately it would be criminal to remove it, thanks to Congress.

        Now the article says the FCC doesn't require a loud tone, which is technically true. Unfortunately the Telecommunications Act DOES require a loud noise of some type, so that blind people are aware that they've dialed 911.

        This is a mandated "accessibility" feature. The FCC says they're free to remove the "alarm" but at best they could replace it with a loud voice announcing "you're calling 911!" which I don't think would help.

        In this case Congress deserves the blame for passing a law without thinking of the consequences. They demanded that all phones make it clear to blind people that they had dialed 911, and the only way to do that on phones without a Braille interface is a loud noise of some form. No matter what the FCC says about the alarm not being "required," some form of loud noise IS required.
        • Re:Well, duh. (Score:5, Insightful)

          by jandrese ( 485 ) <> on Thursday November 22, 2007 @12:40PM (#21446697) Homepage Journal
          Why not just put a "blind person mode" on the phone (probably with a more PC name)? This mode would emphasize voice dialing and whatnot and have the 911 alarm, but could be turned off by people who do not need it. In fact it could be off by default and turned on by the representative at the store if the person buying the phone needs it.
          • Re:Well, duh. (Score:5, Insightful)

            by UncleTogie ( 1004853 ) * on Thursday November 22, 2007 @01:29PM (#21447077) Homepage Journal

            This mode would emphasize voice dialing and whatnot and have the 911 alarm, but could be turned off by people who do not need it.

            What amuses me is that they call a loud SOUND an "accessibility feature" for the disabled, ignoring the fact that it does us deaf folks no good... In fact, it might be MORE dangerous; I might not have heard the "alarm" and left it going... and for those asking what a deaf guy has a phone for, 911 is it. Even if I can't hear the operator, I can keep repeating the important info {location, problem, situation} until someone shows... assuming the bad guys don't hear me or my phone first.

            If the jerks had really considered the entire subset of disabled, they might have realized that a "vibrate" pulse every 3-5 seconds is the only solution for both deaf and blind people.

            I'm not asking them to bend over backwards for me; I'm just asking the FCC to put more thought into these regulations.

      • Well, there's a really easy way to fix this. You probably can't expect them to do it themselves (though with the negative PR this is creating, maybe). But the easy thing to do is, if you have one of these phones, have your lawyer call Verizon and tell them, "Hey, we're going to start a class-action lawsuit." You'll see a really quick change on their part. It's the American Way!
  • Very practical, when you're hidden in a closet because a criminal comes in with a weapon... I'm sure he won't mind you witness his crime.
    • by HexaByte ( 817350 ) on Thursday November 22, 2007 @01:21PM (#21447021)
      But now that you know it's there, use it to your advantage!

      Scenario: Criminal breaks in. You hide behind/under the bed, dial 911 and throw cell phone into closet. It yells "I'm dialing 911". Criminal yells, "No, I'll kill you first", goes for closet. You shoot the bastard, saving your tax dollars being wasted on a trial. It's all caught on the 911 tape, and investigators conclude you were in direct fear for your life and acted appropriately.

      Next, you sue the Cell phone company for putting you in danger and giving you the emotional distress of having to kill a human being, resulting in your retirement fund being fully funded early, and you moving to the Bahamas to live a life of ease.

  • Very Dangerous (Score:4, Interesting)

    by fixer007 ( 851350 ) on Thursday November 22, 2007 @11:02AM (#21446007)
    What if she had been in a bank or restaurant that was being held up? The alarm would alert the theives and the person could easily be put in danger.
    I know a woman this happened to, she was behind the counter when theives broke into a bar to rob it. She hid behind the counter and called 911. If she had this phone, she would most likely be dead.
    • Already happened (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 22, 2007 @12:03PM (#21446427)
      This has already happened [] to Esther Green, wife of New York Jet Victor Green. She was carjacked and kidnapped along with her 11-month old baby in 1999. While the carjacker was driving them God-knows-where, Green discreetly reached into the diaper bag and SILENTLY dialed 911, while continuing to engage the kidnapper in conversation. A smart 911 dispatcher listened in and figured out what was going on and sent a cop, using information Green provided in her conversation.

      With an audible alarm, Green and her baby would very likely have been dead.
    • is to time a simulated "sneeze" or loud cough at the same exact time to mask it. More safely would be to have a coworker "sneeze3" or "cough" who is far away from you to distract them. Sure it would look weird and would draw attention, but at least it doesn't signal the true 911 call.

  • Who thought that putting an alarm on a phone dialing 911 was a smart idea? It's not always about alerting anyone nearby to the fact that something's wrong- sometimes you don't want anybody to notice you, like when you're home and someone's broken in. Better to err on the side of caution. Eh, glad I know of shops where I live that can get Korean phones onto the Verizon network- I don't have this issue.
    • I'm sure that whoever thought it was a smart idea thought that the primary reason people called 911 was in case of a medical emergency. E911 makes it possible to find your general location, but only to within a city block or so IIRC. A loud alarm on the phone would make it possible for them to find you even if you became unconscious. Unfortunately, it also makes you a huge target if you aren't calling for a medical emergency.

      The solution to this problem is to make a separate panic alarm which is activate
      • the other reason I can think of for an audible indication is that someone mandated that emergency calls should dial through keypad lock. Unfortunately the result of this combined with the short length of emergency numbers is to send a hell of a lot of accidental calls the emergency services way...
      • Sanyo [] makes a phone with a manually-activated alarm (a pull string on the back). It also launches a tracking application that allows you to trace it, even when off. That's a good implementation- Verizon's is not. I wish Sprint sold this model- I think it'd be popular with overprotective parents for their kids.
    • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

      by thejuggler ( 610249 )
      Yeah, but if someone breaks in my home when I'm home, the alarm on the phone won't matter because the last thing the intruder just heard was the shot being fired by my .357!
      • Unless you miss, in which case you have made things a heck of a lot harder for yourself because you have lost the element of stealth. I'm near-sighted; I couldn't possibly do that without my glasses, much less in the dark.
    • by deniable ( 76198 )
      In the past, many phones have accidentally dialed emergency numbers. This was such a problem that they may have wanted you to know that the phone you left in your bag, pocket, whatever was making an emergency call. I used to have a Nokia that SIM/no SIM was designed to call 112[1] under any circumstances, even having the keypad locked. Lock the keypad and mash keys. It would ignore everything until it saw a 1, another 1, a 2, and dial. Stupid 'features' that supposedly forced changes to the Australian '000'
  • " requires that phones let a caller know a 911 call is underway, but does not require an audible alarm."

    So now don't bother trying to call 911 the next time there's a school massacre - you'll just be targetting yourself and earning bonus points for your Darwin Award. Fucktards strike again.

  • by LordKronos ( 470910 ) on Thursday November 22, 2007 @11:15AM (#21446081)
    I can kind of see the point of this, with all the people who've accidentally dialed 911 while the phone was in their pocket/purse. However, I think this may be the wrong way to go about solving the problem. I don't have any evidence to back up my theory, but I suspect most accidental calls don't actually dial the full 911. I've seen several cell phones before where simply holding down the 9 key will dial 911. If that isn't an accident waiting to happen, I don't know what is. Eliminate that, and I wonder how many accidental calls will be left.
    • by FRiC ( 416091 )
      112 is also the default emergency number for most phones / carriers, and can be dialed even if the keypad is locked.
      • In the UK I can dial 911, 112 or 999 by mistake. Well, at least I used to be able to since the iPhone doesn't react to anything other than fingerpresses.

        Perhaps have it so that if you dial an emergency number with keypad locked, the phone will make an audible/vibrate notification with a few seconds delay before actually placing the call, but if it's unlocked then it doesn't on the assumption that you know damn well you're making an emergency call.
    • by CoolVibe ( 11466 ) on Thursday November 22, 2007 @11:30AM (#21446185) Journal
      In the Netherlands we have a similar service (we dial 112 instead of 911), which sometimes gets called accidentally. A human picks up the call, hears nobody on the other side, and hangs up. The caller gets an SMS that notifies him that he/she dialed 112 accidentally. Way better system.
      • by hjf ( 703092 ) on Thursday November 22, 2007 @11:57AM (#21446369) Homepage
        unless you're in a car crash and passed out just after you dialed 112. yeah, way better system.
      • by dmatos ( 232892 ) on Thursday November 22, 2007 @12:00PM (#21446391)
        The way it works in NA, IIRC, is that if 911 is called and the operator doesn't hear anyone, they have to assume the worst and send fire, police and ambulance to the address of the phone (if it's a land line). Not sure how it works for cell phones.
        • I've heard the same thing but I accidentally dialed 911 once and when I realized what I did (before hearing a ring or voice etc.) I hung up. Then I picked up to dial the correct number and heard silence, no voice, no keyboard typing, no background noise, just dead silence so I clicked the receiver a few times. Finally I accepted what happened and just hung up and left it hung up. A couple seconds later the phone rings "This is the police, why did you hang up on me?"

          I spent the rest of the day assuming the
          • So no. I think the policy is just a myth.

            And saying there's a blanket policy for North America is just plain crazy. There might be such a policy in your particular metropolitan area, but that's about it. It happened in our office though. One of the sales guys was dialing long distance and you have to dial 9 to get to an outside line. So, he dials 9, followed by a 1 for long distance, then accidentally dialed another 1 and hung up before he realized the call was connected. As the number it's dialed out of doesn't get answered (it goes to a ge

      • In the UK I've seen a callback from the 999 operator after a call was made and they didn't hear anything (just something along the lines of "We just got a call from this phone, is everything OK?", "Yes, it must've accidentally dialed, sorry to waste your time."). Don't know what they would've done if the callback wasn't answered though.
    • I don't think it would do a damned thing to prevent accidental 911 calls.

      I've dialed 911 by accident once before and it's embarrassing enough. Especially in my case because I realized what I had done rather quickly and hung up before I heard any ring or voice (I was trying to order a pizza and the number starts with 977 ... I typed 911 by mistake). Only the call did go through and when I picked up the receiver I didn't get a dial tone (or hear any voice or any noise at all .. it sounded like a dead line) so
  • by ( 579491 ) on Thursday November 22, 2007 @11:23AM (#21446123)
    I call 911 on a regular basis to report out of control drivers and street fights (I live in Boston, there are tons of both of these). All my Verizon phones (I've had three) go into "Emergency Mode" when you call 911 and stay in this mode for several minutes after the conversation has ended then make a loud chirp when going back into non-emergency mode.

    Two semi-related notes... first, a couple months ago my battery died when I was reporting a street fight. When I checked my voicemail after it was done charging I had an irate message from a cop yelling, "DO NOT HANG UP ON THE BOSTON POLICE!" and threatening me with arrest!

    Second... on Nokia candy bar phones when the keypad is locked you can key in 911 and it'll automatically come out of the locked mode. Also, 112 does the same. Can anyone tell me what 112 is?
  • This is not a good idea at best and more than likely a horrible idea. The standard I'm trying to call 911 in secret criticism works here. I can't watch the video in the article (youtube video anyone?) but I would imagine if I dialed 911 and heard some crazy alarm coming out of my phone I would hang my phone up and try again. I'm not sure what the alarm sounds like but if it's just some siren I would give up after a few tries thinking 911 was broken. Do we have a way to test this? I can't add or change emer
    • I watched the video- it's not exactly ear-splitting or a siren (sounds sort of like one, though), but it's distinctive and probably about 60-70dB.
  • by Bazman ( 4849 ) on Thursday November 22, 2007 @11:29AM (#21446177) Journal
    Right now the US emergency services are being slashdotted by slashdotters calling 911 to see if their phones go into this mode! Go on, call 911 now and you'll hear that all the operators are busy, and would you hold while they play you some Vivaldi...

  • Easy solution (Score:2, Informative)

    by Kohath ( 38547 )
    This is another problem that can easily be solved by carrying a handgun.
  • by Forkenhoppen ( 16574 ) on Thursday November 22, 2007 @11:32AM (#21446207)
    Does a giant exclamation mark appear over your head too?
  • Doh! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Jah-Wren Ryel ( 80510 ) on Thursday November 22, 2007 @11:32AM (#21446213)
    This is the kind of story that shows up in Risks Digest [] all the time - an email digest that ought to be mandatory reading for anyone involved in technological development.

    Clearly the goal is to reduce bogus 911 calls that occur when a cell phone's keys get accidentally pushed, like in a purse or someone's pocket. But the first question that should have been asked is just how much of a problem are such calls? Yes, we get the occasional anecdote [] of cell phones gone wild, but is it really such an overwhelming problem that it needs to be fixed at all?

    Second, presuming it is so common that 'something must be done' -- then they should have come up with an escalating alarm - like say more than 5 consecutive calls to 911 or more than 10 minutes air-time connected to 911 and the phone plays a short recorded message through the phone so both parties can hear it saying that it is going to start making noise in a few more minutes unless the user - or the 911 operator on the other end - types in a short number to disarm it. Even if the user doesn't know what to do in response to the message, the 911 people will quickly become familiar with such warnings that they will know what to do. (I'm assuming that 911 operators have actual keypads at their stations, that might not be the case.)
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by imipak ( 254310 )
      RISKS Digest recommendation thirded with alacrity. It should be a must read for virtually everyone technical, designers, developers, architects, sysadmins,.. in fact I wish the general public read it as well, sometimes. Might set their expectations a bit more realistically when they're planning things like ID card systems, working on the assumption that computers are like the ones in Star Trek in being omniscient and virtually error-proof.
    • by CKW ( 409971 ) on Thursday November 22, 2007 @01:09PM (#21446937) Journal
      > should have been asked is just how much of a problem are such calls?

      It will become a problem if designers (or their idiot pointy haired managers) keep making dumb decisions.

      Blackberries that have the scroll wheel and/or the pearl are extremely prone to accidentally dialing 911. If the scroll wheel is *touch* or moved in any way - a dialog pops up with three options:

          Emergency Call (aka Dial 911)

      So if the scrollwheel was scrolled down a tiny bit (50% of the time!), now all that's needed to call 911 is two presses in a row of the scrollwheel - (there is a confirm dialog, and it defaults to yes please call) - and hey we already know that it's getting mucked with because it got moved!

      Guess what the Blackberry/Rogers techs had to say when I phoned them to ask how to disable that? "Putting the phone in your pocket or your purse *IS NOT SUPPORTED* - you are NOT supposed to do that." They claim that blackberries are only being used "as designed" when they are in their crappy shitty uncomfortable holsters*. RIM has clearly heard tons of people bitch to them about it, because they were immediately defensive and angry and very cross for me not keeping it in the holster 24/7 - clearly a canned "oh we need to blame the customer for our screw-up" kind of response.

      What kind of stupid idiot designer uses *one button* to create an emergency dialing system? At the very least all other phones require you to press two seperate buttons in a particular order (9 - 1 - 1) without pressing any other buttons within the reset/re-lockout period. I have never EVER pulled my cell out of my pocket to find it ready to call or calling 911. EVERYONE I know has pulled their blackberry out of their purse or pocket to find that it was one button press away from calling 911, and I was walking with another friend on a street when he got a call back from 911 saying "what's the problem, you just called us".

      The laws may say the phone has to be able to make emergency calls, but it doesn't say the designers need to be daft idiots.

      Someday I'll get around to writing a letter to the chief of police in my city and province, and to the attorney general - and pointing out that all the dead calls they are getting are likely from Blackberries, and that they should sic the dogs on RIM.

      (*) Holsters that for one reason or another continuously hold down buttons and keep the screen on.
  • Do a firmware push to turn this feature off of all phones enabled with it ASAP. Someone will be in a compromised situation who needs to call 911, alert a criminal and be killed or seriously hurt because of this.
  • by rodney dill ( 631059 ) on Thursday November 22, 2007 @11:44AM (#21446283) Journal
    Danger Will Robinson, Danger
  • Will 911 be flooded with calls as everyone who reads this story tests their phone to find whether it makes an audible alert when 911 is being called? If I had a cellphone I'd sure as hell be testing it for this misfeature.
  • Wrong sound (Score:3, Funny)

    by Deadstick ( 535032 ) on Thursday November 22, 2007 @12:17PM (#21446525)
    Perhaps they could offer a new alarm tone: SHUCKSHUCK.

  • by Just Some Guy ( 3352 ) <> on Thursday November 22, 2007 @03:24PM (#21447905) Homepage Journal

    I don't like automated "helper" systems like this that can't be overridden. It's my nature to try to come up with a situation where they'll do more harm than good. My pet anti-favorite is always-on headlights on cars. I imagine a scenario where you're in the middle of nowhere and trying to get away from the bad guys before they can find you. You ease the keys into the ignition of your silent-running electric car, take a deep breath, and turn it on - only to see your lights^Wbeacons come on. The bad guys jump out and shoot you.

    Safety features are great, but they must be overrideable.

"The pyramid is opening!" "Which one?" "The one with the ever-widening hole in it!" -- The Firesign Theatre