911, what’s your emergency?
As I begin this article, I reflect on the thousands of calls I have answered during my years as an emergency dispatcher. I have handled calls ranging from what time does the public library open to murder.
I have learned and have tried to put all of the negative aspects of the job behind me. From missing children to officer down calls, I continue to do the job because not only do I enjoy the excitement but I genuinely like to help people.
This article is not meant to lecture or insult anyone’s intelligence. I also understand that my initial contact with persons who call 911 are usually under intense and highly stressful circumstances.
Hello, my name is Diane, and today we will be discussing emergency dispatch 101 for you, the citizen.
It was 2003 and I was downstairs at my mother’s home. Like a faint whisper, I thought I heard my name, like a croak, coming from the stairwell. “Diane!”. I yelled upstairs a couple of times to where my Mom was, no answer.
Hmm, odd I thought.
When I still didn’t hear anything, I went up to see what was going on.
When I got upstairs, I found my mother on her knees at the window gasping for a breath, completely unable to talk. I bolted down the stairs, rifled around in the closet and tried to find her nebulizer.
By the time I got back upstairs, she was no longer breathing.
At this point, I went in to auto-drive. Somehow I called 911. Somehow the medics arrived. I called my sister sobbing that Mom was dead.
I vividly remember the medics carrying my mother down the stairs with the stair chair. Both of her hands were dangling lifelessly, black as charcoal from the lack of oxygen in her body.
I remember the ambulance sitting in front of the house for what seemed like an eternity before racing off to the hospital with my mother in the back.
By the grace of God my mother lived. I attribute it to the quick response of emergency personnel.
And the emergency dispatcher.
Fast forward 14 years
I’m now a 911 dispatcher with 10 years of service, 2 jurisdictions and countless amounts of hours dealing with thousands of people’s 911 emergencies under my belt.
I am the critical first link in the same chain of emergency response that saved my own mother years before.
I see firsthand the short staffing 911 centers are constantly dealing with, while the calls for service grow and grow. The constant connection through cell phones, texting, social media, Ipads, laptops, snapchat, twitter and so on it goes. Mean people have more ways to access emergency services than ever before.
Why am I sharing all this with you? In 2003 I picked up a phone, I dialed those magical 3 numbers, 9-1-1, from the phone in the house, help arrived, and my mother was saved.
At that time, I had no idea what actually happens when someone calls 911.
I have been on both sides.
I am qualified to explain the behind the scenes and answer questions like,
“When should I call 911?”
“What happens when you call 911 with a cell phone?”
What can I, as a caller, do to help the emergency responders?
Why do they ask so many questions sometimes? Wouldn’t it be better to just get the help here?
What IS a 911 emergency?
First of all, let’s talk about what IS an emergency for 911.
My mother not breathing was, without a doubt, a 911 emergency. I don’t think anyone would hesitate to call 911 for that. But let’s clear up some of the grey area.
Generally speaking, an emergency for police is a crime in progress or something that occurred within 5 minutes or so and there may still be a perpetrator close-by. Examples are burglaries, home invasions, thefts, car accidents, domestic violence, child abuse, those are all calls for 911 if they are occurring right now.
A 911 Emergency is also anything happening where there will be a serious threat to property, life, limb or may cause permanent injury.
Trouble breathing, severe bleeding that won’t stop, unconsciousness, if you are ever unsure, call 911. But try to use these guidelines to help you decide.
Now what happens?
You have an emergency. You pick up your phone and dial 911. Then what happens?
Well before you even speak to a dispatcher, things are already in motion to get you help. If you call from a landline phone (yes, some people actually still have these relics) your address and the phone owners name will usually be transmitted to us.
We will re-verify the information we get from you. Sometimes the phone company has it wrong or perhaps the emergency isn’t at this address but down the street.
If you call from a cell phone, we will usually get GPS coordinates that our system will translate in to the most accurate address it can. But more often than not, what we get is an address based on the phones distance from the cell tower that transmitted the signal.
In the 10 years I have been a dispatcher these have become more and more accurate, BUT it is still not reliable and we MUST get a verified address from you in order to get you the fastest help.
“Where is your emergency?” is undoubtedly THE most important question a dispatcher will ask you. If you are unable to answer anything else please try to answer this!
We have resources and databases to get help to you but at best, there will be a delayed response. At worst, we will be unable to find you and never get help to you.
Why do we ask so many questions?
After we have verified where we need to send help, then we get to work asking questions to help determine the most appropriate response.
At this point it is so important to let the dispatcher take the lead and answer their questions as concisely and thoroughly as possible. Every second counts, especially in medical emergencies, and we want to get that emergency response rolling out to you quickly.
A dispatcher who has been doing this a while can usually make an assessment and get the call routed to the appropriate emergency service in a very short time, less than a minute for most calls.
Once we know who to send, we start with the questions.
A lot of people get upset with all the questions and we frequently hear “Just get them here!”
The reason for the questions is two-fold.
First, it helps you, the caller, by making sure we are sending all the correct responders we need to. You wouldn’t want a police officer to show up when what you needed was an ambulance!
Second, in most larger jurisdictions we have the “luxury” of people of who answer the phone and another position is on the radio who will actually dispatch the equipment. This is so important because it allows us to keep gathering real-time information on the phone while the radio person gives updates to the units on the way.
In a medical situation these updates can be life-saving.
Many jurisdictions now even offer emergency medical information, we are trained to give you instructions from controlling a nose bleed all the way to CPR (and yes, we have to use it often). All of this can be going on while the units are rapidly responding to your emergency.
And of course in the world we live in information is gathered for the responders safety. We will try to gather any information about the situation so we can give the responders a snapshot of what they are rolling up on. This will usually involve descriptions of who is there, if there are any weapons involved, drinking, drug use etc……anything that may lead to a more volatile or erratic situation.
The takeaway from all this is that yes, we may ask A LOT of questions, but they are not wasting anyone’s time. There is a real need for them.
For you. The responders. For the victim or patient.
Hopefully you will never have to call 911 but the reality is that you probably will have to. Knowing what is going on behind the scenes may help alleviate some of the anxiety. We want to help you. We are professionals. Help us help you.
Diane Rushton Eno is an emergency dispatcher with over ten years experience. She has worked with two agencies in her career and has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from The Penn State University. She has three children and drives a Subaru. Diane enjoys swimming and gardening.
As always, please feel free to comment or add to the discussion. We look forward to hearing from you!
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