Weather Forecast


A mystery 911 call: Helicopters, hovercraft assisted in search for unknown source

The Bemidji Fire Department was one of four agencies that responded Wednesday morning to a phantom 911 call from out on Lake Bemidji. The Fire Department responded with its hovercraft, which was the first time this year the vehicle was used. Photo Courtesy Bemidji Fire Department

Emergency responders spent about three hours Wednesday morning in search of a person who may have been in distress.

The incident remains unsolved - no one was located - but it prompted a warning from Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp about accidental 911 calls.

If an adult accidentally calls 911, Hodapp said, he or she should call back to inform Dispatch of the mistake.

"Because of the tremendous amount of work and resources that go into these calls," Hodapp explained. "A lot of effort goes into responding to these calls."

Similarly, if a child accidentally calls 911 and hangs up, an adult who realizes the mistake should call Dispatch back, he said.

A 911 call, originating from a cell phone, was received by Beltrami County Dispatch at 8:06 a.m. Wednesday. The department's mapping system placed the location of the cell phone within the borders of Lake Bemidji, northeast of Cameron Park.

Mapping technology does not show 3-D imaging, so law enforcement was not able to determine if the call came from atop the water or ice, or from under the water or ice, Hodapp said.

First on the scene was a Beltrami County deputy, who began scanning the area with binoculars.

Also responding to the scene were the U.S. Border Patrol, which sent two helicopters and a jet; the Bemidji Fire Department, which sent an engine, a truck and its hovercraft; the Bemidji Police Department; and other members of the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources was also called, but was unavailable.

No one was located.

Cell phones

Oftentimes, when a 911 call is placed from a cell phone but the call is ended, Dispatch will call that number back to ensure it was an accident.

But this was not possible in Wednesday morning's event.

The cell phone that placed the 911 call originated from a TracFone, which is a cellular system that does not require an annual plan. Rather, minutes are loaded onto the phone by purchasing cards.

Because of that, Hodapp said, there was no way to trace the owner of the phone or who had placed the call.

"There was no indentifying information," he said.

A similar situation arises with phones that are no longer in use. Law requires any phone - even those that do have active cellular accounts - to be of dialing 911.

If a discarded or inactive phone is used to dial 911, Hodapp said, Dispatch is not able to trace the subscriber to figure out who called for help, either accidentally or on purpose.

911 response

When a 911 hang-up call is received, Hodapp said, law enforcement responds until it hears that response is not needed.

There are countless reasons why an actual 911 call would be ended; i.e. in a domestic dispute, one partner may hang up the call to prevent the other from asking for help.

In the case of Wednesday's incident, Hodapp said, emergency responders had to be on scene to ensure no one was in danger.

"We needed to make sure there wasn't somebody who had fallen into the lake or somehow got trapped under the ice," he said.