When there is an emergency, calling 911 has become an instinctive reaction. For 50 years, Americans have been calling 911 for help and there are approximately 240 million people do it each year. The number was created to be easy to remember and efficient, but what happens when you make the call?
Receiving the Call
When a call to 911 is made, it goes to a dispatch center. There are many dispatch centers through the country. Since they are all reached by the same phone number, it is important to determine which one is closest to the emergency call when it is made, for the fastest response time. If the call is made from a landline, the call is already routed to the closest center through the phone lines. Cellphones work a bit differently, with the center being determined by which cellular tower is transmitting the signal. The call will be directed, according to the center closest to that tower. Since this isn’t a perfect science and calls aren’t always received at the closest center, dispatchers are trained to direct calls to the closer center, or multiple centers.
When a dispatcher answers your phone call, they will ask questions. These cover the basics, such as:
- What is your emergency?
- Where are you located?
- What number can you be reached at for follow up questions or if emergency personnel need to contact you?
- When did this first happen? How long has it been going on?
- If you witnessed a crime, do you know who the offender is? Have they left the scene of the crime?
These questions help determine whether they should send the fire department, police officers, or emergency medical services. The more information you can provide also helps those responding to know what situation they are coming to and what how they should be prepared to do. Help is sent as soon as possible, not after the call is complete. Answering the questions does not delay emergency response since they can send help through computer aided dispatch. The dispatcher can also help keep you calm and know what to do until help does arrive.
If you call and there is no emergency, the dispatcher will direct you to call the non-emergency number for the proper jurisdiction. This helps free up the lines for real emergencies.
Responding to the Call
Once the dispatcher has sent the call for help, the appropriate department responds. When police officers respond, the officers that are closest to the emergency are contacted first. Police dispatch software can send officers all the information beforehand, right to their cellphone or other device. This helps give them the necessary details while they are driving. Call center dispatchers usually stay on the line with the caller until help arrives. From there, the responder can contact for more help if needed.
In cases of no response or disconnection, an officer is sent out to investigate. Sometimes emergencies happen when no communication can happen. Most jurisdictions prefer to send someone out to investigate, just in case.
Dispatchers receive a lot of training because they are called on to filter calls, determine appropriate responses, and deal with callers who are panicked, afraid, and incoherent. Even with cutting edge technology and more effective communication systems, this job is stressful and difficult. But through it all, calling 911 is essential for communities and helping those who live inside them.