San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management recently launched Make the Right Call, a campaign that aims to reduce unintentional 911 calls. Photo courtesy SF Department of Emergency Management

Facing both a steady increase in calls and a shortage of people to answer them, San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management recently launched Make the Right Call, a campaign aimed at reducing unnecessary — and unintentional — 911 dials.

“A large portion are, for lack of a better word, ‘butt dials,’’’ said Francis Zamora, the agency’s director of external affairs.

And there are plenty of them — some 30 percent of all calls to 911 in San Francisco are accidental.

Dispatchers are required to follow up on dropped calls, and in 2016, they spent roughly 5,000 hours calling people back, Zamora said.

“That’s time that could be spent answering real 911 calls,” he said, “and getting to people who have police, fire or medical emergencies.”

The number of 911 calls in San Francisco has grown by more than 35 percent in the past six years, Zamora said. And now, more than ever, dispatches need to focus on emergencies. But in 2016, only 60 percent of the roughly 686,000 911 calls pertained to actual emergencies.

“There is an absolute clear need for public education regarding calls to 911,” Zamora said. The number is only for emergencies in progress.

The focus of the campaign, which began appearing online and on buses across the city in late October, will shift throughout the coming year. Right now, it’s primarily focused on accidental dials.

The campaign urges people to lock their phones so that they can’t open and make calls from inside pockets and bags. It also emphasizes the importance of staying on the line in the event that you do accidentally dial 911.

A secondary focus — auto break-in reports — was added to the campaign earlier this week, because too many residents call 911 after a break-in has happened. Calling 311 is more appropriate.

To coincide with the start of the holiday shopping season, when auto burglaries tend to spike, Make the Right Call launched a series of radio spots and signs — concentrated mostly in the city’s major shopping districts — instructing the public on how to file a police report by going online or calling 311. (The Department of Emergency Management is also partnering with SFPD’s Park Smart campaign to educate people on how to safeguard their cars from theft.)

The next phase of Make the Right Call will focus more broadly on 311 and all of its uses. These include filing police reports and reporting graffiti, potholes and other issues that are often mistakenly directed to 911.

The campaign was also designed to help alleviate problems within the Department of Emergency Management caused by a significant staffing shortage.

The department currently has 125 fully trained dispatchers. Ideally, Zamora said, that number would be 165. The deficit has led to mandatory overtime requirements and has limited the existing dispatchers’ ability to keep up with the city’s 911 call volume.

Zamora anticipates that by the end of January, the center will gain around eight or nine new dispatchers, who are currently completing their training.

The staffing shortage was brought to light after a major power outage in April of this year, during which the dispatch center was overwhelmed by calls. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors, led by Supervisor Aaron Peskin, was determined to address the issue. As part of their plan, they granted the Department of Emergency Management $250,000 to launch the Make the Right Call campaign.

In the months since, Zamora said he’s seen small, but promising, signs of change.

This month, the dispatch center met the national standard of answering all 911 calls within 10 seconds, 90 percent of the time, for the first time in five years. Previously, Zamora said, “we were kind of stagnant in the mid-70s” percent range.

Until the new dispatch workers come on board, Zamora said, the focus is on reducing the number of unnecessary 911 calls across San Francisco, beginning with the nearly 206,000 accidental dials that occur each year.  Another 69,000 calls should be going to 311 or the non-emergency line, which is 415-553-0123.

“If we can make a dent in that, we can reduce our call volume and improve answer time,” he said.

The Board of Supervisors’ grant will fund the Make the Right Call campaign through the end of the year, but Zamora hopes to keep the program going indefinitely.

“This shouldn’t be a one-time effort,” he said. “We need to sustain this. Behavior change doesn’t happen in one year.”

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