Casey's jonesin': For an easy 911 escape

Talk about a really bad place to have a blowout: while approaching the summit of the Delaware Memorial Bridge. Now, this isn't just any bridge; at its peak, it soars 188 feet above the Delaware River.

So when the van Rosamond Casey was riding in chose that spot to blow a tire, things got scary– and dangerous– fast.

The driver worked her way over to the right lane and stopped. Luckily, they were near a section of the bridge with an actual sidewalk. In other sections, Casey explains, there's only a foot-wide clearance between the traffic and the fence. Everyone, including a 3-year-old and a 70-year-old, got out and stood near the van, which was at a dead stop as four lanes of traffic sped past.

Casey called 911 and learned that other drivers had already reported the breakdown and that help was on the way. By the time the tow-truck driver had changed the tire (which, under those circumstances, must have been challenging), about 45 minutes had gone by. She decided to call the people who were expecting them– but couldn't: The phone was in "emergency mode," and when she tried to dial out a message appeared that said, "Use restricted to emergency calls." There were no instructions, however, for getting out of emergency mode.

Fortunately, she was able to reach Sprint customer service by hitting *2. The employee she talked to, Casey says, was "kind of clueless"; she claims he said that to unlock the phone, she'd need to press some combination of buttons while talking to him– which, without a second cell phone, would be impossible. In the end, he was able to reset the phone by remote, and she made her call.

"I was so outraged," Casey says. "I've thought of all the ways it could have been disastrous." She thought about filing a complaint on Sprint's website, but decided that might be as effective as "throwing it into the ocean." Instead, she called me.

I spoke with Margaret Wright, regional public affairs manager for Tennessee and Virginia, who in turn called Sprint headquarters in Kansas City. Perhaps because Casey was somewhat unclear on the exact sequence of events, miscommunication ensued: Wright's response, after talking to Kansas City, was that Sprint customers were not barred from making other calls after dialing 911.

It took a little digging, but I now know quite a bit about Sprint's emergency mode and the reasoning behind it. First, I borrowed a friend's Sprint PCS Vision Phone VI-5225 by LG (the model Casey has) and dialed 911. After I hung up, "Emergency Mode" appeared on the display, along with "Exit" in an orange bar underneath. When I tried to make another call, the display changed to, "Use restricted to emergency calls." When the "Emergency Mode" display returned, I tried pressing various buttons to exit, but couldn't figure it out.

Luckily, my friend could. All I can say is, it wasn't intuitive– but then I'm not a Sprint PCS customer.

Internet research turned up two things. First, I reviewed user's manuals for four manufacturers' models of Sprint cell phones (LG, Toshiba, Motorola, and Sanyo). All except LG state that after a user dials 911, the phone goes into emergency mode– which the user will have to exit before making another call. LG's manual says only, "You can place calls to 911 (dial 911 and press talk), even if your phone is locked or your account is restricted." There's no mention of what follows, or how to get out of it.

Second, I learned that this function was designed to allow emergency services (i.e., 911) to call you. That's an excellent feature– but so is being able to make other calls. Wright agrees that the instructions for doing that, both on the display panel and in the user's guide, need to be improved.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.