Friday, April 12, 2013

How to dial 911

This week's Theme Thursday asks us to give instructions for something.  I figured its easiest to give instructions when you are well acquainted with "How not to do it" so I will put my dispatcher hat on and give instructions for calling 911. (I will point out that the rules in some jurisdictions may vary, but generally speaking these are the rules.)

 First determine if you should call 911 at all.
911, as the rule book says, is for "Life threatening emergencies only."  Life threatening emergencies means life threatening emergencies for people. It doesn't mean animals unless they are in some way threatening said people.  You may think this is obvious, but a few years ago in our town a woman was charged with misuse of 911 after she called repeatedly reference her dog being in labor.  And if I had a nickel for every person who called 911 about loose dogs on the freeway or cats up in trees, I wouldn't have to wait for my minimum retirement date. Non emergencies also include: 10 year olds talking back to their parents, keys locked in cars, fender bender car accidents, and disputes over shared driveways. (Never share a driveway. With anyone. But that's a story for another day.) Mind you many of these calls require police.  But they do not require 911.

Dispatchers understand that our perspective is not yours and you may think something is an emergency that law enforcement does not. Usually we will try to inform you as politely as possible what the correct number is to call. Call the number you are given.  Write it down.  Better yet learn the non emergency number ahead of time and write it down by the phone.   Don't keep calling 911 looking for a different answer. Misuse of 911 is a criminal offense in most jurisdictions. But if someone is really hurt, if there is a serious car accident, if there's a fight, if there are weapons, if someone is missing (FYI the 24 hour "rule" on missing persons is a myth. If someone is missing make a report.) call 911.

So you have a real emergency. Now what?

Well first, a small yet important point--the number is 9-1-1 not 9-11. You would be amazed how may people think 9-11 and look for the 11 button on the phone.

Also, make sure everyone in the house knows how to use every phone in your house. Especially make sure younger kids know how to use rotary phones. This is one of the things we always teach little kids when we do public ed classes. Lots of times little kids will need to call for grandparents or great grandparents, and have no idea how they work. Cell phones require you to punch in numbers first, then hit the send button. Most cordless phones are exactly the opposite. So make sure everyone knows how the phones work.

Next point: know where you are. This is especially important if you are calling from a cell phone, or if you use one of those systems that work through your computer. Unlike a land line phone, these do not give your specific address. Its true a general fix can sometime be made on a cell phone location, but they are not always accurate. Even when they are accurate it is only to the width of 3 football fields. That's a lot of houses on a residential street. So know where you are.

Know whats wrong. This may seem obvious, but try to find out what's wrong.  If they say they are "sick" try to find out symptoms.  If someone knocks on the door and asks you to call the police, try to find out what is wrong.

So you know where you are, and know what the problem is,  so you dial 9-1-1. And the phone rings. Sometimes it may ring several times. Now here's the next hint:  don't hang up and call again. If the call takers are busy you have just dropped yourself to the bottom of the queue. Not only that, your hang up call will still be in the system and have to called back. We will then get a busy signal because you are calling in again. So stay on the line and wait to be waited on.

When your call is answered you will probably be asked for your location and the nature of the problem. Answer questions as fully as you can. Most call centers are computerized, so your info is being entered even as the call taker speaks to you. (And we are great multitaskers.) 

And here is something else that a lot of callers do not realize: unless you live in a very tiny town, you aren't talking to the person who is coming. The person talking to you is either typing to another person, who talks to the police and fire personnel, or they are typing to a computer in the cruiser or fire vehicle. Usually they are working from a set of questions or protocol that they are required to follow. If they give you medical advice it's on the screen in front of them. Try to give them all the info you can and follow their directions till your assistance arrives.  That especially applies to fire and medical calls. If they say get out of the house then go.  If they say start CPR then do it (don't worry they will talk you through it). If they say, don nothing till help arrives, listen to them.  Don't hang up until you are told its OK to do so.  Sometimes the dispatcher wants to speak to the responder.

I hope you never have to use this information. But if you do, I hope it will go more smoothly if you keep what I have told you in mind. And your dispatch personnel will appreciate your courtesy and consideration.

This post is part of the Theme Thursday blog hop hosted by Jenn at Something Clever 2.0. To read more posts, or to link up, click on the button below.


  1. Ive only used 911 once but boy was I glad it was there. I used to work in an ER and it was much like you describe...the night someone brought in a chicken they accidentally bumped with a car (it was fine) was the real clincher!

    1. One time we had a peacock that was running loose in the middle of the night in the downtown area, and yes people called 911 reporting it!

      ER people are at the opposite end of the chaos from us. We almost never find out how things turn out, and they never get to hear the first half of the story.

  2. I feel like a dog on the freeway is kind of borderline. If a car was traveling at high speed and hit it, or swerved to avoid it, that could potentially cause an accident, right? But the cat in the tree.... Wow. Did the same caller also complain that a hobo stole a pie off of their windowsill?

    1. A dog on the freeway could be an emergency, the problem is that generally not much can be done about it since theofficer (or warden) would have chase him right across, same traffic. And.yes cats up trees, loud music or loud power tool complaints,kids playing ball in the streets and all sorts of other minor problems can and do produce 911 calls.