If you live in the United States you know that three digit, potentially terrifying phone number. Indeed, I’m talking about the 9-1-1 (Editor’s note: a list of international emergency numbers can be found here.) We all know it, and we all hope we’ll never have to be the ones to dial it. As a 911 call-taker and dispatcher, I love my job even though it’s sometimes stressful, scary, or overwhelming.
One of the biggest challenges in my profession, however, is dealing with a public that has little to no understanding of the 911 system. In emergencies, including but not limited to the life or death situations, mere seconds can make a big difference in the outcome. Here are some tips to minimize panic and maximize response times in the event you or your kids have to make that call.
1) Make sure everyone knows your location
This is by far the Most Important Rule for placing emergency calls. Make sure everyone who is of dialing age knows your home address — this may seem obvious, but without going into too many (frustrating) details, I’ve had many calls from adult callers who do not know their own address. Not at home? That’s fine — look for clues in the surrounding area, and teach your kids to do the same. If you’re at a friend or family member’s house, point out a piece of mail. If you’re on a family car trip try to keep semi-decent track of mile markers and know what highway or road you’re on — it may not be practical to make sure your kids are keeping up, but if you know where you are you’ll be able to tell whoever is making the call.
This may seem harsh — after all, you’re calling 9-1-1 to alert us of a potentially dangerous or emergency situation, right? As much as that is true, there is Very Specific Information we need to gather in the shortest amount of time possible. If you won’t stop talking, it takes us even longer to do so, resulting in longer response times all around. I promise, we are highly trained individuals, asking questions Very Purposefully, so that we can help as quickly and efficiently as possible. It’s incredibly important that when discussing emergency calls with your kids you stress this tip — listen, listen, listen.
3) Answer the questions asked to the best of your ability
This seems like a no-brainer, but I cannot even convey how many times I ask for pertinent information only to have the caller say back to me, “That’s not important! Just send somebody!” Chances are, we have sent someone already, and it is important, otherwise I wouldn’t be wasting your time asking it. As an agency that literally has lives on the line, we have stringent and well researched protocols in place. These can range from the required order you ask questions of the RP (Reporting Party) to the exact wording you use to ask said questions. We want to help, and we want to help quickly and effectively — help us do that by answering our queries.
4) Telling us to hurry up doesn’t make anything happen any faster
But it can slow us down. Because of the way dispatch centers are set up, 99% of the time, someone other than the person you are talking to is already sending an ambulance/fire truck/law enforcement officer while the call taker you have on the line is gathering further info from you. It’s completely natural to say things like “Please hurry, please hurry” in an emergency, but it’s so important for you and your kids to understand that we’re doing everything we can.
5) Our tone does not reflect how much we want to help you
I won’t lie — sometimes I have to use my Mean Mama Voice with callers. It’s not because I’m cranky or angry with them and it’s not because I’m on a power trip or rude. It’s because sometimes, if someone is panicking, they need to be told What To Do, straight up. I’m not trying to be heinous — I’m just trying to get my caller to listen and either answer my questions or act accordingly. If I am giving CPR instructions to someone, it is extremely important they hear me out and follow those instructions verbatim. The caller cannot do that if they are totally freaking out, so I might have to be stern to be effective.
6) Stay calm
Easier said than done — I know this, I truly do. I also know that the best outcomes for the worst calls come when callers are able to maintain their composure, answer our questions quickly and follow our instructions. Take a deep breath and try to remember that you’re in good hands.
Emergencies are totally scary, shitty and unfair — but they happen. Hopefully you won’t ever be in an emergency situation, but if you are, remembering these tips — or even printing them and hanging them somewhere the entire family can easily access — could greatly change the outcome.