6 tips from your friendly 911 dispatcher for placing an emergency phone call

Guest post by shadymama
By: Raymond BrysonCC BY 2.0

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 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 everyone is keeping up, but if you know where you are you’ll be able to tell whoever is making the call.

2. Listen

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.

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 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 that everyone in your home can easily access — could greatly change the outcome.

(This post was originally published on Offbeat Families.)

Comments on 6 tips from your friendly 911 dispatcher for placing an emergency phone call

  1. In certain places I’ve lived, you have to call 911 for anything involving the police, even if it’s not an emergency. I open with “this is NOT an emergency,” but it still feels weird to dial those numbers.

    • Yes!!!! I once had my cell phone stolen from my purse, and needed to file a police report in order to use the insurance I had through my contract. I called 311 (I live in NYC) to get the number of my local precinct, and they told me to call 911. I was SO SURPRISED that was the correct procedure, and then TERRIFIED when I called 911 and the phone rang almost a half-dozen times before someone answered.

      I opened with “this is NOT an emergency,” like you said, but those moments I was waiting for an operator to answer were out of my literal nightmares. What if it HAD been an emergency?!?

    • At one point my workplace had something jiggered with the phone line so the tech had to make sure 911 still worked. He called in and started off with “This is not an emergency” then did the rest of his scripted verification. While what he was doing was completely logical, it just seemed so *wrong*.

      For #1 there was one time I was driving in BFE on a newly opened “expressway” and was desperately waiting for a turn in any direction so I could get back to roads I actually knew. I saw an accident behind me (idiot not paying attention and ended up in a ditch) and tried to call it in only to realize I could give no useful information on my location. Thankfully I came to a tollbooth a few minutes later and the toll guy called it in.

    • Same here. It has only been that way for about a year (before that, there was a non-emergency number that connected you to the Watch Commander’s office) and I HATE it. I have to call the cops fairly frequently for non-life-threatening things (like bullshit vandalism in my neighborhood that I’ve been instructed to always report by the cops themselves) and I always feel like I’m somehow abusing the 911 system or stopping someone with an emergency from getting through.

    • Same here, and what makes me feel even worse/weird is they answer “What’s your emergency?” Um… I don’t have one, but I have to call here because someone stole a bike at the library.

    • On the flip side of this, I am blown away by the number of people who think the only way to contact police is through 911.

      Saw a post on Facebook about a stolen item, saying if you see it call 911. Uh, no, you getting your shit back isn’t an emergency.

      Also had to call the police from work because of a suspicious car in the parking lot. Seemed to be the only one in the building who knew there was a number other than 911 to call. And even though I hadn’t called 911 they still responded very quickly.

  2. I’ve had to call 911 more than once for medical emergencies and I want to echo the “listen to the questions” and answer as best as you can. If you don’t know the answer, fine, but let them know that.

    Also, everyone should have their address listed close by to all of their land lines (or in a conspicuous spot) , because it may be a neighbour or a friend or client that needs to call from your home or business and saving the time by having it there instead of having to look for an address could be a matter of life and death.

    Lastly, I have taught sailing and been a director for a number of sailing programs in Canada, and it is nationwide policy that each sailing club or program needs to have an emergency action plan created and posted in conspicuous places that includes emergency phone numbers (including poison control, etc.), address, directions or maps to the club or where the ambulance will meet (if the club is on an island), and key people that are trained in first aid that will be around as well as information as to where health records, emergency contacts for kids first aid kits etc are kept. Now that I’ve moved on from that world, and working in an office that doesn’t have one, I’ve realized that this is something that could be applicable to all office places and homes and that it never hurts to have an EAP just in case something happens.

  3. Additional useful tip on that note:

    Your place of work or school might have its own internal emergency response team and/or protocol. If so, you should know what it is and what they recommend for the fastest and best response. For example, a lot of universities have their own volunteer ambulance team. In some cases, the ambulance on call in the middle of campus can get to the emergency faster than the private ambulance company several miles away. 911 is always a good choice, but if your internal response team says, “call us first” or “call us too,” then you might want to do what they say.

    • Seconding this. My university was very much built for walking, and while it had driving paths for vehicles needing to access buildings, there were posts and bars in the way to prevent traffic from regularly getting there. The growth of the university over time also meant that it was a pretty convoluted place to get around when you didn’t know your way, so it was always recommended you call campus security first. Depending on the situation, they could drive you to the hospital themselves (and since it had a university hospital, it was conveniently close by) or they would call 911 for you and give directions and have people go to any bars that blocked the way and open them for the emergency team. Just calling 911 yourself could easily go significantly less smoothly. As a bonus, direct lines to campus security were placed all around campus, so no need to worry about finding a phone or having one on you – just go to the nearest bright blue thing sticking out of the ground.

    • THIS! The museum I worked at required us to call our internal security instead of 911- the internal security could get the emergency responders into the correct area of the large building, through security doors, etc. I imagine other such institutions and businesses have similar protocol.

  4. When reporting a road accident its important to highlight if the cars are still in the “live” traffic lanes or have managed to pull over off the road. Even if there are obviously no injured people, if the cars are in a live lane then I always call the emergency services – its so easy for cars to run into the back of an accident, or into the back of slowing traffic – so you really want people in high vis jackets with blue lights asap.

  5. This is all excellent advice! I want to add one tip about before you actually call. If you are in an emergency situation with several people, like at a family gathering or at a restaurant or something, designate a specific person to call 911. Point to someone, or use their name, JOE go call 911. If you count on “someone” to call without saying anything, or just say “someone call 911!” you’re going to have a bunch of people standing around assuming someone else already called, or you’re going to have six people calling 911 about the same incident which can slow down response times. It’s something I teach my lifeguards in training.

  6. And if you call them on accident, DON’T just hang up. Cuz they’re gonna call your ass back anyway. Staying on the line reduces the wasted time everyone has to spend understanding that it was an accidental call. (I learned this when I worked at target, directing calls. It was very easy to accidentally hit the button that called 911. Whoops.)

    • This reminded me of when i worked in a credit union (which is practically a bank), and the head of the lending department was trying to hook his laptop dial-up modem (years ago… obviously) through the phone system, and it had to be set to dial 91 to get the outside line first and he had somehow set it so that it kept dialing 911. As you can imagine, multiple calls and hang-ups from a bank to 911, they sent the police – three patrol cars drove by before a single officer walked in to make sure there wasn’t anything going on while all the others were in their cars around the building… It was always good to know just how fast/good the response would be after that if anything had happened.

  7. I’m a school nurse in NYC and have called 911 more times than I would like. I’d like to emphasize point #1 above. Unlike in the movies where they say, “911, what is your emergency?” in NYC at least, they say, “911, WHERE is your emergency?” first. That way if you get disconnected at least they know where you are. That was hard to adjust to at first. I’ve now gotten good at giving my borough first, then my address, then my cross streets. You are focused on the problem, but they can’t get you help without the location.

    I’d also add that when answering questions, do it in as few words as necessary. They don’t need to know how the accident happened (unless they ask); they need to know if anyone is hurt and how badly.

    Trust that they have assessed your situation and will get someone to you in the appropriate amount of time. When a child has mild concussion symptoms and needs an escort to the hospital, it could take a few hours on a busy day. On the other hand, when a child is having an asthma attack and struggling to breathe, they will get there NOW without fail. The former feels frustrating but think of the lives literally being saved while you wait your turn. And if the conditions change, you can call back and let them know.

  8. I think many of us really don’t understand the call taker’s job at 9-1-1. To be honest this not only gives very good information but points out at very important issue which is to co-operate with them so that they can do the same for us.

  9. I’m also a 9-1-1 dispatcher and I agree wholeheartedly with every single one of these points. It’s amazing how many people don’t understand what information we need to get them the appropriate help. It’s especially worrisome, at least for me, when someone hangs up on me on a medic call when I’m in the middle of questions that will determine the exact severity of the situation, whether you need just an ambulance or maybe some extra personnel on top of that.

    I also occasionally get ridiculous calls like “the Chinese place messed up my order” which are always just peachy.

    • I used to do the same job in the UK – the ridiculous call which sticks with me was the guy who ordered a pizza and thought he’d been over charged. He was insisting it was robbery…

      I rather enjoyed the ‘the caller is NOT always right’ aspect occasionally!

  10. As someone who occasionally does the responding to 911 calls, another VERY IMPORTANT TIP: Make sure your house number is visible! Jesus Christ, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to drive back and forth trying to figure out which house is number 45 because people can’t be bothered to have a visible number or they never bothered to update their number after the state re-numbered everything ten years ago…..

    Make sure your house number is at least 4 inches tall, bold, easy to read, contrasting with whatever background it’s on (ie, don’t use silver metal letters on a house painted gray), and preferably reflective and/or glow-in-the-dark for night. Also, numbers that just say boldly “79” are much quicker for a responder’s brain to process than letters in nice cursive script that say “seventy-nine”. Ignore the lovely stuff on Pinterest for cutesy house numbers painted on pumpkins on the porch…you can have decorate numbers only if you also have bold numbers. If the numbers are on a mailbox at the end of a driveway, make sure those follow the same criteria (so sick of teeny tiny number stickers only on one side of the mailbox), and make sure the numbers are ALSO on the house in case the mailbox gets knocked over. My mailbox is a nice large rural mailbox, with 4″ reflective numbers on BOTH sides, painted a bright Tardis blue (a distinctive color is helpful in case the numbers get obscured by blowing snow).

    Make sure the sign marking your road is maintained as well. If the sign is faded, bent, or missing, contact your town’s road department to get a replacement sign.

    The speed of the police/fire/ambulance is only as good as their ability to find your house.

    • As a kid, my parents had to call 911 pretty often when my brother stopped breathing (he contracted whooping cough as an infant- not pretty,) it was usually someone’s job to stand out in front of the house and ‘wave in’ the ambulance as they arrived. I’m not sure if that sort of thing is recommended, but it always served us well to meet them outside and bring them right into the house.

      • Yes, a designated waver is good….but numbers are still critical in case there isn’t one.

    • I would assume that having a working porch light would also be an important thing in an emergency. I know a lot of people rarely/almost never use their porch lights, and it would be important to make sure they are still working, and that they try to turn them on in the case of an emergency.

      Also my childhood home the way we did our Christmas lights was to convert the porch light into an outlet for the strands. That could have been problematic, even with our 4.5 inch black numbers on a white board affixed to our house.

  11. I have worked in a position of answering emergency calls though not in America and the list is pretty good. However from the other point of view, I have called triple 0 here and got an operator who was so fixated on her script she wouldn’t listen towhat I was trying to say for a very unusual emergency situation. In the end I hung up on her then called again and got an operator who would listen. This woman just kept yelling at me to listen to her when I, as an emergency responder myself (which I had made clear) knew that her limited set of questions would not help the child who needed to be rescued by helicopter on the other side of the country. (I received the call by accident as I was the only service they could get through to on the sat phone). The training can be very limiting. Keep calm and get your location and contact details across, that is the first most important thing.

  12. I’ve been curious about this for a while and hope someone can assist with this question. With the rise in households that don’t have a landline and instead have cell phones, does this pose problems for 911 calls? For example, my husband and I live in a Boston suburb but still have our Philadelphia area codes on our mobile phones–and we don’t have a landline.

    Would this pose problems when calling 911?

    • I don’t know for sure, but my understanding is that cell phone emergency calls are routed to emergency centers by which tower they’re nearest, not by area code.

    • It is true that cell phone calls get routed to PSAPs (Primary Safety Anwering Point, usually a police/sheriff agency that works has jurisdiction in that area) based on the tower the phone uses when it makes the call. But calls can go to any of several towers in an area, and I can tell you that at least 25% of the time, wireless calls go to the wrong place. This is especially true for small cities that abut each other and all have different police agencies.

      Wireless 911 calls can be very tricky. Even the best cell phone/GPS info will only get emergency responders within a few hundred yards of your house. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when you think about very densely populated areas or large apartment complexes/buildings – it’s almost impossible to find exactly what we’re looking for unless it’s really obvious (like a fire). There could be thousands of people within that few hundred square yards, a number which doubles/triples/etc when you think about the multiple floors on some apartment buildings.

      As the author said, location location location. This is especially vital when it comes to cell phone calls, because we honestly have no idea where you are. Even if you’re having difficulty breathing or freaking out, just remember that we need your address no matter what.

      On a related note, VOIP calls (calls made using computers with services like Vonage) are becoming more and more common. Please please please, remember to register your currect address when you sign up for VOIP phone service. This is equally true if you move.

      A 911 call gets routed to a PSAP based on your *registered address* so if it’s wrong, things can go bad fast. The 911 world is increasingly abuzz with horror stories of PSAPs in one state getting calls with clear emergencies in the background (heart attacks, physical domestic fights), where the caller is in another state or even country.

      Every dispatcher I know does this job (which is my job, too) because we truly want to make the world a better place. Helping people through their worst possible moments day in & day out is as difficult as it is rewarding. Thanks to this author, for helping spread the good word!

    • hey rockwell – when you say “problems” do you mean you’re worried about your 911 call potentially routing to the wrong location? if that’s the worry, here’s my take on it: when you dial 911 from a cell phone, the call is routed to the closest PSAP (Public Service Answering Point aka 911 center) to the *cell phone tower* that sends the call out. so, you could call 911 from your philly area code cell phone in the middle of texas, say, and you’d just be routed to whatever center is lined up with that tower. does that make sense? hope that was helpful! also – it never hurts to do a test call – if yer local center has a non-emergent line, just give them a buzz first and let them know you’ll be placing a test call to 911.

      • Yes, I was concerned about the call routing to the wrong place. But as someone else said above, it sounds like being able to provide one’s address right away when the person on the other end of the line answers is helpful.

        All this info is helpful and setting my mind at ease. Thank you!

  13. For people who live in apartment complexes or condos, know how to best direct them to your specific building and door. Their directions will get them to the complex, but from there, emergency workers depend on available signage to get there. Probably ask if clarification would be helpful before volunteering this additional info.
    For an example, my apartment complex directs people to the back of my building on a path that winds through the complex, which would waste a lot of time considering that I’m on the ground floor, right by the street. The building number is also hidden on the back side of the building, so it’s very difficult to find. I watched emergency workers searching for what turned out to be my upstairs neighbor during an emergency, and I know they wasted precious time getting there.
    Basically, if pizza delivery has a hard time finding you, an ambulance may, as well.

  14. I’ve called 911 a few times in my life. I tend to get weirdly calm in emergency situations— where some people freeze, I hop into this hyper-logical “get shit done” mode. It’s like I get this laser-focused adrenaline rush (and afterwards I am always beyond exhausted). So speaking with an operator isn’t as stressful for me as it might be for other people. What HAS been really stressful for me is when I’m the bystander responding to something and I have to tell another person (who is usually a lot less calm) to call.

    A good example of that was when my elderly neighbor fell into the street while trying to get her newspaper in the morning. I spotted her in the street as I was driving down my street to go to work, right about the same time another neighbor came out of her house. I pulled over right away to see what I could do. I used to be a lifeguard, so I have some basic training for this kind of thing. While I checked my elderly neighbor’s vitals, I told the other neighbor to call 911, which she did, but when they asked for the location, she spent probably a good 20 seconds or so being uncertain before I finally looked at one of the house numbers and rattled the address off to her. It was very stressful trying to handle both my elderly neighbor and the one who was freaking out at the same time. :/ Eventually the ambulance arrived, and things turned out okay, but it’s not a situation I’d care to repeat.

  15. Just throwing this out there…BEFORE there is a potential emergency in your home, try to look at everything from the perspective of the EMTs…do you leave stuff piled up by your doors? Are your corners stuffed with stuff? If a stretcher had to be maneuvered through, could it be done, and reasonably so?

    Snow, slippery leaves, broken steps in the dark…try to imagine like you’re there for the first time trying to help maneuver an entire person from inside to the outside, safely and quickly. Yes, EMTs are trained on how to move patients on stairs and in hallways and all sorts of tight spaces…but there is a balance between reasonable training and unnecessary complications!

    Also, if it’s okay with your Dispatch center and emergency services crews (which it most likely will be), bring those lovely people baked goodies from time to time! They do a whole lot of good without always getting a whole lot of love…

    *hugs the Dispatchers* you’re the best! ^_^

    • thanks for the shoutout, Gwen! you wouldn’t, by chance, be a first responder? thanks for all you do!

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