For most people, calling 911 is a frightening event. If you don’t have a good understanding of how the system works when you call, it may seem overwhelming. By understanding exactly what information is needed and why they may ask you so many questions, you will make the call go more smoothly and get the appropriate emergency help.
When calling 911 you will get a 911 operator called a Call-Taker, Telecommunicator, or Dispatcher. This is the person who will gather your information and guide you through the process while sending emergency help to you. This is usually not the person who will be responding to you. They are responsible for determining the type of emergency, the correct location, and getting the right help to you.
When you call 911, remain as calm as possible and listen to the questions and instructions of the call-taker. There is certain information needed to get the right help to the right place, and often they will give you instructions on things to do the help the situation before emergency responders arrive.
- Giving a good location to the call-taker is absolutely critical. Try to give an exact address or location for the emergency. If you are traveling, be able to tell them what is around you or your nearest cross streets, mile markers, and landmarks. This will help them to determine the nearest units to send to you. You will be asked to verify the address. In most cases if you are calling from a home phone or other landline, the information appears on the call-taker’s screen, but they are required to confirm the information for accuracy. If you are calling from a mobile phone, it is more difficult to find you. Many factors including your service provider, signal strength, and the area you are calling from can affect your call. Be prepared to give more descriptive location information when calling from a mobile phone. If your call is routed to a center that does not cover your area or the specific type of emergency, don’t worry, they will get you to the right person. Also remember that it helps responders to locate you more quickly if they have more than simply your street address. Give directions and a good house description to the call-taker. Try to describe it to them just as you would tell a friend how to find you if they have never been to your house. Make sure the address is clearly posted and easily visible for emergency responders. How easy is it to see your house numbers at night in stormy weather? It may also be helpful to your responders if you have someone available to go to the end of your driveway to flag them down.
- Tell the call-taker exactly what is going on. It is important that they have all the necessary information to send the correct type of units to you and be able to relay that to the responders so they bring the correct equipment for your situation. Listen to the questions they ask and then answer them clearly. You may think that some of the information seems unnecessary, but sometimes they may need to send more than one unit or different types of units and relay necessary information to them.
- Do exactly as the call-taker asks or instructs you. They may talk you through life-saving procedures or tell you things to do before emergency responders arrive. They may also have to get additional information for the responders. If you are reporting a crime, they may ask you for descriptions of the suspects or which way they went. That way they can have an officer to come to speak with you while other officers in the area are looking for the suspect.
- Don’t hang up until they tell you it is ok to do so. If you hear silence, don’t worry, that doesn’t mean they have disconnected; they are still listening to you. Sometimes, your call-taker has to talk to other dispatchers or responders on the radio and you may hear brief moments of silence. In some cases, they will keep you on the line until emergency responders arrive on scene while in other situations, they may allow you to hang up after they have gathered all the necessary information. Just because they are asking questions doesn’t mean that help isn’t on the way. In many cases, someone else is dispatching the emergency responders while the person taking your call is still gathering information.
- Once they have told you it is ok to disconnect the line, keep your phone line clear. If possible, don’t call anyone else until the responders arrive. The 911 call-taker may need to call you back for additional information, especially if the responders are having difficulty locating you.
The basic things to remember are to stay calm, tell them exactly how to find you, and do exactly as they ask or instruct you. Remember they are here to help you, and giving them the necessary information allows them to help you better. They are trained professionals who are always there for you!
Many public safety agencies offer presentations to the community to help you better understand when and how to call. Contact the non-emergency number to speak to someone about setting this up.
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