Dispatchers track down prank callers

Pranks are a part of growing up. But when pranks put lives in danger, they become very unfunny and in some cases criminal.

I-COM recently dealt with a series of prank 911 phone calls. The culprits, however, were not aware of the dispatch center’s technological expertise.

During the evening shift on May 10, I-COM received several prank 911 calls from a non-initialized cell phone — a phone with no paid service.

“It was the sound of kids and the dispatchers had written it up as a problem that night,” said Alice Johnson, I-COM operations supervisor.

The next morning similar calls came in with a coded number that allowed dispatchers to trace the number back to the cell phone.

“When the call came in, it was again similar voices,” Johnson said. “We were able to get a GPS lock on the area in which the call was coming from and it was similar to the GPS lock from the night previous. It was the same neighborhood.”

Well-versed in similar prank 911 situations, the dispatchers determined that the kids in the neighborhood were making the calls.

Officer Ron Hofkamp of the Oak Harbor Police Department was on duty and began an investigation. He initially went to an address at the corner of Putnam and Roeder drives where the GPS system was “hitting.” When he discovered no children resided at the home, he deduced that the pranksters were using the phone while walking the route to a nearby elementary school and milling around the previous night.

“I went to the school and asked them to make an announcement that this is against the law to be playing around like that,” the officer said. “The owner of the phone actually came forward and said, ‘It was my sister doing it.’”

Dealing with 11-year-olds, Hofkamp turned the matter over to the parents to dole out punishment.

“Officer Hofkamp was awesome,” Johnson said. “We matched the serial numbers to the phone and it was all she wrote.”

A similar situation took place in Stanwood, where again, elementary school kids were using cell phones to prank the dispatch center.

“The kids were at school using an old wireless phone maybe their parents had,” Johnson said. “And when their parents got a new phone they let their kids have it to play with. Well, it still calls 911. That’s all it will call. We traced it right to the classroom.”

When the recent calls came in, they were not the only ones at the time, adding a level of danger to the prank.

“That morning we had two medical calls going on at the time and we only had three personnel working,” Johnson said. “So, these kids were interfering with other people’s real emergencies.”

The kids were not using the old standbys. There were no inquiries about Prince Albert in a can or running refrigerators. The callers were claiming they were being assaulted.

“They weren’t just playing, they were making false reports,” Johnson said.

False reporting is a misdemeanor and could carry with it a maximum of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Had the children been 13 or older, they could have been charged with the crime.

“Not only is it an abuse of the system to begin with, which is totally illegal, but it could result in something that would be very, very harmful to someone else out there,” added I-COM Director Tom Shaughnessy.

Officers investigating prank calls have access to phone recordings, which can help identify callers.

“Everything that comes in here is recorded, so it’s very easy for us to copy that recording and supply it to the officers,” Shaughnessy said. “If they do this, they’re going to get caught.”

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