The 4-1-1 on 9-1-1

9-1-1 is intended to be used for emergencies.  Barking dogs, loud music, and other routine calls should be placed on the seven digit number to your local law enforcement agency.  Find those numbers, and put them in your speed dials and memory slots, and they’ll be available when you want them.

If you need an ambulance, or a fire truck, or see a crime in progress, THAT’s when you dial 9-1-1.  If you’re in doubt, err on the side of caution, and dial 9-1-1.  There is no charge, and you won’t get in trouble if you don’t really have an emergency but called anyway.

Here’s a little known fact about 9-1-1:  it’s not one big room, with everybody’s 9-1-1 line going there.  We can’t stand up and yell “Hey!  Boston!  Line 2!” (thanks, Linda – I love that image!)  Another little known fact:  in all but the biggest cities, the same people who answer the seven digit numbers answer the 9-1-1 lines.  The thing is, 9-1-1 lines have priority.  And they are limited in number.  If you’re calling in on one for something that is NOT an emergency, you are tying up a line that someone else may need.  You’re also tying up an operator who may be delayed answering the next 9-1-1 line for a real emergency.

When you call 9-1-1 about, say, a traffic accident, and it’s taking forever for someone to answer, it’s most likely due to everyone else around you also calling on their phones, and we’re working our way through multiple reports about the same incident.  Don’t hang up and dial again, that just puts you at the end of the line.  The phones are all computers now, and they line up the calls in the order they are received.

When you dial 9-1-1 from your cell phone, here’s the most important thing you need to know:

WHERE YOU ARE! If you don’t know, odds are we won’t either.  Sometimes the phone will send us your GPS coordinates, but that’s not always reliable.  Your phone may be holding the last good fix it had on the satellites, and you might have moved since then.  You would be amazed at how many people have no clue where they are.  They know how to get there, they know who is there, they know why they are there… but they don’t have any idea as to the address, or even the name of the streets they’re on.  This makes sending them help very problematical.  We might get close, but we really hate having ambulance crews or policemen hunting around trying to find someone in trouble.  Know where you’re at!  Or if you have to call 9-1-1 from an unfamiliar location, try to use the land-line phone, and not your cell.  We’ll know where that wire leads, not so much the radio wave.

Another thing about cell phones:  They all can call 9-1-1.  All of them.  Even the ones that are no longer active.  If you upgraded your phone, and tossed the old one in a drawer, as long as the battery has juice it can dial 9-1-1!  Some of them have a one-button feature, so it doesn’t even require a 3 stroke pattern to call.  If you give your old one to the baby to play with, TAKE THE BATTERY OUT!  That’s right…  you don’t know how often I end up listening to your little darling chewing on the phone, punching buttons, and jibber jabbering away.

OK, back to some basics about 9-1-1.

Try to stay calm.  We know it’s probably the worse moment of your life, but we can’t help you if you’re so hysterical you can’t tell us anything.  Don’t have the least informed person call.  Don’t have a small child call.  Call us first! Don’t call your sister and have her call us.  She won’t be able to tell us much, and she seldom knows what your address is.  Yeah, it happens a lot.  I don’t know why.

Don’t yell into the phone.  Phones, especially cell phones, are designed to clearly transmit your voice at speaking volume.  Yelling overloads the circuitry, and creates distortions.  Yelling louder makes it worse.  Try to speak normally.

Let us ask the questions.  Answer them as best you can, but don’t make anything up.  We are trained to ask certain questions in certain ways at certain times, and you can best get help by being succinct and accurate in your answers.  Don’t ramble on,  don’t try to give us background unless we ask for it.

Stay on the line until told it’s OK to hang up.  It’s perfectly fine to stay on the line until the emergency crews arrive, if you feel the need to do so.

Remember, the 9-1-1 line is for emergencies.  If your call begins “this isn’t really an emergency…” then you probably should not be calling 9-1-1!  Post near, or program into, your phone the non-emergency numbers for your area.

RECAP 9-1-1 Basics:

If you’re calling on your cell, know where you are.

Don’t yell.

Call 9-1-1 FIRST.

Let the 9-1-1 operator ask the questions.

Answer them as correctly as possible.  Don’t make things up.  Incomplete is usually better than inaccurate.

Stay on the line until the 9-1-1 operator tells you it’s OK to hang up.  You can stay on the line until help arrives, if you feel the need.

If you misdial 9-1-1, don’t hang up.  Stay on the line and tell the operator it was a misdial.  If it connects through and starts ringing, stay on the line.  Even if you hang up, it still comes into the 9-1-1 center, and we have to track it down.

Pay phones can dial 9-1-1 without money.

When in doubt, call 9-1-1.  Otherwise, find and use the seven digit number.

9-1-1 is not 4-1-1, 5-1-1, 2-1-1, or 3-1-1.


This is not presented by any 9-1-1 organization.  It should not be taken as how every 9-1-1 center operates.

I am a 9-1-1 dispatcher, and these are my suggestions and opinions.

As with Mission Impossible, the secretary will disavow any knowledge of my posting.