Published: Jul 12, 2012 6:30 PM EDT
Updated: Jul 12, 2012 6:50 PM EDT

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Your cell phone rings.  Nobody is on the other end talking.  You've been butt dialed.  Somewhere, somehow, somebody's cell phone unintentionally dialed your number.  It's happened to all of us.  It's annoying and it's no big deal big but it is a big deal when it dials 911.  A WINK News Investigation discovered it happens thousands of times a year.

During our three month investigation crunching numbers, WINK News found out in Lee and Collier counties combined, more than $714,000 are being put into deputies chasing bogus 911 calls.

Three numbers, 911.  They are priceless when you need help in an emergency but a WINK News investigation shows taxpayers are footing a big bill for fake or accidental 911 calls.

"Thats any call that we get receive that we don't get voice contact where we have to call them back and try to ascertain what the problem is," said Sandra Betts, Collier County Communications Operations 911 manager.

Dispatchers throughout southwest Florida treat every 911 call as if it's the difference between life and death.

"Somebody could easily perish if they can't get through on a true emergency because we're dealing with some, you know, schmuck out there thinking he's funny," said Dena Macomber, Lee County Communications Director for dispatch & 911.

WINK News first alerted the Lee County Sheriff's Office several weeks ago to this exploding trend when we started analyzing their internal numbers.

"You were the first person that I was able to deal with and was really able to see what kind of situation and issue we had here," said Sgt. Stephanie Eller, Lee County Sheriff's Office.

Charlotte County doesn't track their bogus 911 calls.  In Lee County, their bogus 911 calls are called 91's for landline calls and 91-C's for cell calls.  In Collier County, their considered unverified calls.  No matter what county you're in, if 911 if dialed and no one is on the other end, deputies are sent right away.

"We have to always assume the worst, that a person is not able to communicate with us for some reason after calling 911 so that automatically bumps it up so other calls get bumped back down priority wise," said Macomber.

In 2011, there were 209,353 calls made to 911 in Lee County.  16,728 of those calls were bogus calls.  In Collier County in 2011, 55,882 calls were made to 911 and 10,605 of those calls were considered unverified.

Combine Lee and Collier counties, that is a total of 27,333 bogus calls being chased by deputies, taking them away from more important calls.  Remember, if there's no one on the other end, 911 assumes the worst.

"If its a potential threat to human life, then we send multiple officers," said Betts.

Breaking it down to hours, for example, if each deputy is on a butt dial or chasing a bogus 911 call for an hour, that's 27,333 hours of wasted man power.  That adds up to 1,138 days which equates to 3.11 years of deputies chasing bogus 911 calls instead of working other cases.

In dollars, the average deputy makes $27.93 an hour in lee County and a beginning deputy in Collier County makes $23.36 an hour.  Add that up and it's a total of $714,945 put towards bogus 911 calls instead of other calls.  That estimate is on the low end because it's likely to be more than one deputy respond and they have to figure out what really happened and that takes more time.

"They're not just going to a specific thing and a specific location, so they can spend quite a good time out there trying to find every possibility cause we don't want to leave any stone unturned," said Macomber.

But not all bogus 911 calls are accidental.  Some are people misusing the system.  Case and point in June.  A man tried to bring a kitten into a Charlotte County strip club.  He was told no and instead of leaving, deputies say he called Charlotte County 911 four different times.  On the 911 call, you can hear a dispatcher saying hello multiple times, trying to get someone on the other end to respond.  That took a dispatcher away from other calls but this one ended with a man being arrested and charged with misuse of the 911 system.

"You're on the phone tieing up for a bogus call and someone could actually be needing a lifeline," said Macomber.

The sheriff's offices say sometimes those seemingly useless calls lead to arrests in other crimes.  Just last week, dispatchers sent an hour on the phone, listening to someone who accidentally dialed 911.  The dispatcher listened to gather more information only to hear a drug deal happening.  Deputies responded and three people were arrested.

So what can you do if you accidentally dial 911?

"Once you've dialed it, don't hang up.  Let us determine what's going on there," said Betts.

Because bogus or not, a deputy will respond to every call and take precious resources away from people who need it the most.

"We have saved some lives.  That's why we can't take a chance," said Macomber.

Law enforcement says this is largely preventable.  Make sure your child isn't playing with a phone and make sure to lock the keypad so you don't accidentally dial 911.  It could save a life and deputies can stay focused on real emergencies and your tax dollars won't be wasted chasing bogus 911 calls.