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Calls for alarm

May 21, 2005|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - Deactivated cell phones have enabled at least four Hagerstown youths to flood 911 lines with prank fire and police reports in recent months, prompting fire marshals to issue a plea to parents to box the idea of using the devices as toys.

The Hagerstown Fire Marshal's Office, through the Department of Juvenile Services, charged an 8-year-old Hagerstown girl earlier this month with four counts of false alarm/fire and one count each of telephone misuse: single, telephone misuse: repeated and reckless endangerment after they traced 16 prank 911 calls between two days - including four dispatched fires - to a deactivated cell phone at the girl's residence, Hagerstown Assistant Fire Marshal Richard L. Miller said.

He alleged the girl's mother identified the voice on the 911 tapes as her daughter's voice.

"She was devastated," he said.

An adult charged and convicted of the same offenses would face a maximum total of $26,000 in fines and/or 31 years in prison if ordered to serve consecutive sentences. The maximum penalty for any juvenile charge is placement outside the home until age 21.

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"Don't let kids play with cell phones," Miller said. "If they need a toy phone, go to the toy store."

On one of the nights that the girl was alleged to have made a call, dispatchers were tied up with a serious call for a heart attack patient, keeping one of the three duty dispatchers on the line with the girl, Miller said.

"Dispatchers can tell they're juveniles, but they can't tell if it's real or not," Miller said.

That is where the danger lies, Miller said.

"Every time a truck goes out with its lights and sirens on, it puts the public in jeopardy," he said.

It's also expensive. Assistant Fire Marshal Doug DeHaven said it typically costs the fire department about $1,300 to go out on a call that turns out to be false. That amount includes depreciation of the vehicles, staff costs, insurance and fuel, he said. The department will seek some type of reimbursement in the girl's case, he said.

Roy Lescalleet, deputy chief of 911 - Fire and Rescue Communications, said the 911 center has "had a lot (prank calls) this month where kids have gotten a hold of cell phones."

In March, the fire marshal's office traced 30 calls, made over the course of two nights, to a 5-year-old boy and two 6-year-old boys. Those boys were not charged because, under Maryland law, they are not considered criminally responsible.

"The parents gave the phone to the kids to play with, the child was able to figure out how to charge it up and a number they could call was 911," Miller said.

Tracking the phone calls to the deactivated cell phones the four children used cost fire marshals about 20 hours of investigative work, he said. Many of the prank calls, Miller said, are made on the weekends and after school. He said both analog and digital cell phones are being used.

DeHaven said deactivated cell phones often are donated and distributed to endangered people, such as victims of domestic violence, because 911 still can be dialed on them.

"This is not a toy," he said, lifting up his cell phone.

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