How to Call 911 (No, It’s Not as Obvious as You Think)

by A Manly Guest Contributor on December 12, 2012 · 55 comments

in Manly Skills, Survival

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from 911 dispatcher James Dillman.

At some point in our lives, most of us will have occasion to call for the police, fire department, or an ambulance. Our first inclination is to simply pick up the phone and call 911 because it is quick and easy. Not every call for emergency services, however, necessitates a call to 911. Here is a primer on when and how to call 911 and what to expect when you call. Keep in mind that these are general guidelines and if there is ever any doubt in your mind about the proper response to any given situation, you should always err on the side of safety.

This article will primarily address 911 calls that require a police response because that is where my experience lies. Depending on where you live, the dispatcher that answers your 911 call will probably handle any request for the police. If you need the fire department or EMS (Emergency Medical Services), the person answering the call may help you or you may be transferred to a fire and EMS dispatcher. Police, fire, and EMS dispatchers will essentially follow the same guidelines for obtaining the location of your emergency. Once the location is verified, the dispatcher will ask specific questions related to the emergency. Fire and EMS dispatchers are specially trained to give instructions for medical emergencies and these instructions should be strictly followed without argument. They may save not only your life, but also that of someone else.

When Should You Call 911?

A good rule of thumb is to call 911 when someone’s life, safety, health, or property is in immediate jeopardy. This would include most crimes, suspicious persons or vehicles, disturbances (aside from routine noise disturbances), fights, people with weapons, suicidal persons, or any incident involving someone having a dangerous mental or emotional episode. This also means that if you need the fire department or an ambulance to respond, you should typically call 911 without hesitation. Calling the police is frequently another matter as the police department gets all manner of requests. Some require an immediate response and others do not. Knowing when and when not to call 911 will keep the emergency lines open to people with true emergencies.

Police, fire, and EMS all have non-emergency numbers that are typically listed in the front of the phone book (or on your local city government website). These should be posted near all telephones in the home or business and saved in your cellphone. Generally, you should call the non-emergency number for the following:

1. Crimes with a time delay of over fifteen minutes providing there are no injuries and the suspects are not still on the scene, within view, or at a known location nearby. These would include thefts, stolen cars, forgeries, fraud, vandalism, harassment, trespassing, threats, and assaults that don’t require medical attention. Burglaries would fit into this category if the premises have been checked and the suspects are not on scene. An open or unsecure door or window that indicates a burglary has possibly occurred should be considered a crime in progress. You should call 911 and wait outside in a safe location until police arrive and secure the property. Once again, always err on the side of caution when a crime or suspected crime has been committed.

2. Traffic accidents with property damage only and do not present a serious traffic hazard.

3. Questions concerning laws, statutes, or ordinances. Do not call the police for legal advice that should be provided by a lawyer. The police are not lawyers and cannot offer legal advice due to liability concerns. Do not call EMS for medical advice. They cannot and will not provide it under any circumstance. They can only send you an ambulance and give instructions pertaining to the immediate medical situation.

4. Questions concerning arrests or prisoners.

5. Noise disturbances, like excessively loud music or parties.

6. Inquiries on vehicles that have been towed or impounded.

7. Directions to, or the location of, a specific place.

8. Suspected narcotics or vice (prostitution, gambling, etc.) activity not in progress.

9. Warrant information.

10. Missing persons, unless it is a child, someone with a mental or physical disability, or there are extenuating or suspicious circumstances.

11. Disabled vehicles, debris in the roadway, and damaged or malfunctioning traffic signs and signals that are not a serious traffic hazard.

12. Animal complaints that do not involve an injury.

13. Keys locked in vehicles unless there is a child or animal inside. (Many police departments have adopted a policy not to unlock unoccupied vehicles for liability reasons.)

14. Welfare checks, unless there are extenuating circumstances.

15. Information on traffic or parking citations or court appearances.

16. Power outages, water main breaks, potholes in streets, etc. (These calls should typically go to the appropriate city department and not the police, when possible.)

17. Inquiries on road and weather conditions.

18. Complaints on the police.

All of the above are calls that regularly come into 911 call centers by the dozens, or hundreds in larger jurisdictions, and are a serious detriment to real emergencies being promptly attended to. Pocket dials from cellphones and calls from children playing on the telephone or making prank calls are also a major problem. Do your part to keep the 911 lines available to those who really need it.

Many departments have civilian employees who take reports for certain minor crimes over the telephone. This is done to keep as many police personnel as possible available to respond to emergencies and to be proactive in the neighborhoods. Try to accommodate the police if they ask you to make your report in this manner. Do not expect the police to send out a detective and the crime lab to investigate the stereo stolen from your vehicle. If the officer responding to your call needs evidence collected, he will take the appropriate measures. You may have to wait an hour or more for the police to respond to a crime not in progress. You should typically not call the police asking when they will arrive unless the situation escalates or you’re convinced they have forgotten you. The police will always respond to emergency calls first. You would not want the police to ignore an emergency situation in your home or business in order to respond promptly to a loud music complaint that came in ahead of your call.

What to Expect When You Call 911

Now you know when to call 911. Here is what you should expect when you need to do so. First of all, if you call 911 and get a recording telling you to wait, you should wait as patiently as possible. 911 phone systems are set up to answer calls in the order that they come in. If you hang up and call back, you are simply putting yourself farther back in line. Many 911 centers are understaffed and on some busy holidays such as New Year’s Eve, Halloween, or July 4th, even fully-staffed call centers can get backed up quickly. Your call will be answered as quickly as possible. Waiting times on the non-emergency line can be even longer, as 911 calls are answered first. If your call can wait, try calling back later.

911 dispatchers are trained to obtain specific information regarding your emergency. They are typically referred to as the six W’s: where, what, when, who, weapons, and welfare.

1. Where: The first thing the dispatcher will typically ask you is the exact location of your emergency. If the emergency is in your home or business, you should be prepared to give the exact address. It is amazing how many people don’t know their own address or the address of their workplace. If you are calling on a landline, the exact address will typically show up on the dispatcher’s computer screen. Even so, the dispatcher will verify the location you are calling from. Humans enter the information in 911 systems and mistakes are sometimes made. There are occasionally glitches in the systems. The dispatcher knows this and will insist that you verbally verify your location. Technology is advancing rapidly, but most 911 centers do not have the ability to determine your exact location if you are calling from a cellphone.

Remember that apartments have a building number and street just like a single dwelling residence. Many apartment complexes have several buildings and numerous streets. For example, if you give your address as Rolling Hills Apartments #139, the police will likely not know where you are. They need your complete address including the apartment letter or number, if there is one. Many apartment buildings have secured entrances and require the police to be buzzed into the building or have a keypad with an entry code. Be prepared to give the dispatcher any additional information needed to get to your door. The also applies if you live in a gated community with a keypad code.

If the emergency is in a location that you do not have the address for, you must be able to provide the exact location to the dispatcher. Typically that will be the hundred-block (900-block of East 10th Street) or the nearest intersection (16th Street and Riverside). Be prepared to give additional information such as the name of the business or if it’s a residence, which side of the street it’s on, color of the house, description of vehicles in front or in the driveway, etc. You may also give the address of the location you’re calling from and tell the dispatcher that it’s three houses north of that address, or directly across the street or behind the address. Be as specific as possible if you don’t know the address. If you’re in a residence that you don’t know the address for, the dispatcher may ask you to find a piece of mail with the address on it.

In extreme situations, you may simply dial 911 and put the phone down if you are calling from a landline. It may not be feasible or safe for you to remain on the phone in certain instances. The dispatcher will send the police. Do not assume that the dispatcher knows your location if you call on a cellphone. It’s always better to call on a landline when you can do so safely and there is one available.

2. What: Tell the dispatcher exactly what you are reporting. A brief description is typically all that is necessary. The dispatcher does not need to know the circumstances that led up to whatever is occurring. Just tell him what is currently happening.

3. When: Tell the dispatcher when the incident occurred or if it is in progress. In many jurisdictions, the dispatcher will ask you to stop and stay on the phone while he dispatches help with the limited information you have already provided. Be patient and stay on the line until the dispatcher returns to the phone to get additional information. Keep in mind that the dispatcher is probably talking to you on the phone and the police on the radio simultaneously.

4. Who: The dispatcher will ask you for suspect information when that is relevant. This will include the number of suspects, a clothing description, whether the suspects are on foot or in a vehicle, and a description of any vehicles involved. The dispatcher will also ask for the direction of travel of the suspects and vehicles if they have left the scene. If you don’t know what direction they went, tell the dispatcher what street, business, or major landmark in the area they left toward.

When providing suspect descriptions, the dispatcher will first want to know what color of hat, coat, shirt, pants, shorts, skirt, or dress the suspect was wearing. Physical descriptions are not essential unless there is something distinguishing such as very tall or short, very overweight, or if the suspect has some other very unusual characteristic such as walking with a limp, or an amputated arm. Clothing descriptions are the easiest way for an officer arriving on scene to identify a potential suspect. Vehicle descriptions should include color, year (if available), make, body (coupe or sedan, van, SUV), and license plate (if available). Other distinguishing characteristics, such as damage to the front end or a door that is a different color from the rest of the vehicle should be noted.

5. Weapons: The dispatcher will ask if anyone has any weapons now or earlier in the incident. This not only applies to criminal suspects, but also anyone else involved in the incident that may have a weapon. Describe the type of weapon involved and give a clothing description of the person who has it. If someone has a gun, tell the dispatcher if it is a handgun (pistol or revolver) or long gun (rifle or shotgun).

It is imperative that you are cognizant of the laws in your jurisdiction concerning the possession and use of firearms. This is your responsibility. Be very aware that the police arriving on scene cannot tell the suspects from innocent parties and the police can be expected to do whatever they have to do to protect themselves. This could result in the injury or death of a police officer or an innocent citizen. If you or someone else on scene has a firearm, the dispatcher will likely ask you to secure your firearm and have you ask anyone else with a firearm to secure it before the police arrive if it will not compromise anyone’s safety. Strict adherence to the dispatcher’s instructions is imperative for all concerned.

6. Welfare: The dispatcher will ask if anyone needs an ambulance. Again, be aware that you may be transferred to a fire and EMS dispatcher and that you should stay on the line and give the necessary information.

Final Thoughts

There are a few things to keep in mind when calling 911. First of all, keep as calm as possible and try to listen closely to the dispatcher’s questions. Keep your answers as brief as possible and don’t ramble. Try not to repeat yourself. Don’t ask the dispatcher why he is asking you certain questions. He’ll only ask for the information he needs to handle your call quickly and get help on the way to you. You are most likely going to be suffering from some amount of stress when making your call. Try to be polite to the dispatcher. Don’t say, “Just send the police!” and hang up. Don’t tell the dispatcher to hurry. He’s going as fast as he can and that won’t get you help any sooner. The dispatcher is very concerned with the safety of the officers who are responding to your emergency and he will be very adamant about getting the information he needs. Don’t take it personally if the dispatcher seems demanding or nonchalant and uncompassionate. He isn’t, and he wants to help you. Don’t try to carry on a conversation with someone else in the room while you’re on the phone with the police. Give the information asked for as accurately and as quickly as you can and you’ll get the fastest response possible.

Always keep your personal safety in mind when calling 911. Do what is necessary to keep yourself and anyone else on the premises out of harm’s way. You may need to leave the location or lock yourself in a room. The information the dispatcher is asking for is very important, but it does not supercede your safety. It’s always a good idea to discuss potential emergencies with your family ahead of time. Formulate a plan that will keep everyone as safe as possible. If you’re in a larger community, the police department or 911 center will probably have a liaison available to speak to local organizations, church groups, or company meetings about safety at home and on the job. Invite them to one of your events.

Once again, these are merely guidelines and there are no hard and fast rules on when you should call 911. If you are in a situation that requires a response from a public safety agency, don’t waste time debating whether or not it qualifies as an emergency. If there is the slightest doubt, make the call to 911. Just be conscious of the fact that in many instances you will get the proper response by calling the non-emergency number and allow someone in urgent need of assistance to get a quicker response.


James Dillman is a 911 dispatcher in the Indianapolis 911 center. The opinions and recommendations expressed in this article are strictly the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, policies, or procedures of his employer. Contact your local authorities with questions concerning recommended procedures for reporting emergencies in your jurisdiction.






{ 55 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nusy December 12, 2012 at 10:36 pm

Great and very important article. I never had to call emergency services before, and honestly, I was always a little lost about what information would be needed, useful, or appreciated, and what is a no-no with them. I also liked the list of when not to call – I was aware of most of these, but I know many are not.

A short comment on editing: “supersede” is the only ‘seed’ sounding word ending in “sede” (rather than ‘cede’)!

2 numnut December 13, 2012 at 12:12 am

Thanks for the article,quite informative.
I did notice in impoverished areas with lots of police layoffs they tend to only respond to calls relating to imminent danger to life and limb.
Your husband yelling at you is not one of those cases.
Nor is the lack of cheese on your burger at the drive-through.

3 Chris December 13, 2012 at 1:17 am

As a 911 Dispatcher the biggest advice I can give that will streamline the process for everyone is, let the call taker talk and answer his/her questions. It doesn’t help anyone if you just start off throwing information… Be calm and follow their script…

4 Peter Valus December 13, 2012 at 2:56 am

Not quite sure about 112 in Europe emergency, but it’s riddiculous obviously.

5 Dennis December 13, 2012 at 6:33 am

As a paramedic, I’ll toss in a couple of times in which to call 911. If someone begins to have slurred speech, their face looks funny, and can’t walk right, call 911 in case of stroke. If they’re drunk, it can look like this, but this is one time safety is better than discretion. Also, women don’t typically have the “crushing chest pain going to the left arm” type of heart attack. Things can vary from simple ill-feeling to back pain, nausea to upset stomach. Again, especially with the elderly, safety is better. Paramedics can interpret the EKG and make a recommendation.

Great article otherwise, thanks!

6 Chris December 13, 2012 at 6:42 am

I’m a former PD/FD?EMS dispatcher, and I want to add a couple of things.

For #1, where you mention burglaries are a non-emergency call if the building is checked: NO. All suspected burglaries should be 911 calls; civilians and business owners should not be checking/clearing their buildings. That’s the police’s job, they have the training and equipment for it.

For #16 and power outages (which I think should be something people start thinking about with all these superstorms nowadays), I would submit that for a person who is on refrigerated medicines (insulin, for example) a power outage can be a life-threatening emergency. Also, don’t forget downed power lines: if they are laying on a house or occupied vehicle this is a 911 call.

7 Ash December 13, 2012 at 6:48 am

Great article! In Australia, we have 000, and yes, it might seem easy to give the Ws but when you actually need to do it, stress often takes over. We need to stay mindful that procedure is the most effective and rapid way to seek help.

8 David December 13, 2012 at 7:05 am

Fantastic article. I work as a 911 dispatcher for county with a mix of urban and rural areas. All the advise in this article is spot on. Thank you!

9 Tom December 13, 2012 at 7:33 am

Unfortunately, where I live, if you call the nonemergency number for a noise complaint or other less than emergency call, they tell you to call 911 because all dispatch is handled through the 911 center.

10 Matthew December 13, 2012 at 8:19 am

If you upgrade your phone, keep the old one with a car charger cable in your glovebox. All cell phones, even unactivated ones, can call 911. I had to use one to call 911 recently–a woman was staggering drunk and was trying to figure out how to get into her car….

11 John December 13, 2012 at 8:47 am

Great Post. I’ve had to call 911 for several medical emergencies over the years. Where I’m at 911 want’s to know: What is the nature of the emergency? Where is the emergency? Where are you? What is a phone number we can call you back on if the line disconnects? Is an ambulance/firetruck needed? Who are you? Where do you live?
Completely agree on the importance of not using 911 unless it is a bonafide emergency. I’ve got a few friends on the local PD and I know they and the dispatchers have a lot of trouble with people who do not need immediate assistance.

12 Erich December 13, 2012 at 8:47 am

Here after hours calls to the non-emergency number get forwarded to the 911 center. If I am ever calling for a noise complaint (or similar level) I always start the call with “This is not an emergency,” so they know (if they are allowed to and need to) that they can put me on hold without any risk.

Also, if you are staying somewhere more than a day or two, be sure to know the address, especially if the address isn’t right there on the house (out in the country, or away from the street). Last thing you want to need to do is leave the person to get the address for the dispatcher.

13 John December 13, 2012 at 8:56 am

Thank you for the great post! As a member of the largest volunteer fire department in the great state of Nebraska there are three things I would like to add. First, it is important to remember when responders are called, they are responding with only the information the dispatcher obtained, so as stated provide the most complete picture as possible to the dispatcher so responders know to what they are responding. Second, please remember, even in emergency situations responders will not always be there as soon as you hope. From the time you call, to giving information to the dispatcher, to dispatching the responders takes a number of minutes. If you are in the city, the response should be fairly quick, but remember if you are in a rural area, responders have to drive from the city to get to you. Third, I would just like to remind everyone when a responding vehicle with lights and sirens is approaching, pull over to the side of the road and stop, even if you are going the opposite direction. You never know where that vehicle is going.

14 Pat December 13, 2012 at 9:22 am

I might also offer, that debris on a well traveled highway, especially if it is dark might be a bigger emergency than you expect. If you’re driving, and making a call, or have a passenger in your car making it, 911 might be a good option as opposed to trying to look up a non emergency number.

This would be consistent with exercising judgment. If you feel that every moment the situation is not remedied, increases the likelihood that someone’s property or safety is in danger, call 911 and don’t worry about being “wrong”.

15 Spencer December 13, 2012 at 9:42 am

I always felt like that what to say during a 911 call is rather common sense especially the part about giving your location right away because technology is good but not good enough where it can tell your exact location without error. though i feel like it is due to tv cop shows that can give info within seconds and leads people to believe the same is true in real life.

16 Allan December 13, 2012 at 9:50 am

In my neck of the woods anything that requires dispatch of an officer goes through 911. If your calling for administrative reasons the non emergency line is available during business hours.

17 Mike December 13, 2012 at 10:03 am

From a 30-year police officer, good job, Mr. Dillman. Right on target. You have made all our jobs easier. Thank you.

18 Dispatch Joe December 13, 2012 at 10:15 am

One thing to keep in mind is that in a typical call center there are both call takers and dispatchers. As the call taker is gathering information a dispatcher across the room is reading what is being entered into the CAD system and dispatching appropriate units accordingly. This being said, please don’t think that because you’re being asked “stupid” questions, help isn’t already on the way.

In my experience we have received many complaints from callers stating that the dispatcher stayed on the phone too long, asking too many questions, rather than dispatching units. In reality someone else was sending help while the caller was still on the line.

19 Simon December 13, 2012 at 10:19 am

Thank you! People need to understand that non-emergency calls to 911 only serve to hinder the response and availability of our most needed public servants.

As a paramedic, please allow me to add: my ambulance is not a free taxi. While I am toting your healthy self around, someone may be having a life-threatening heart attack. Or stroke. Or whatever.

Please think before you dial.

20 Joel December 13, 2012 at 10:46 am

Retired after 29 yrs in Fire Dispatch. Most calls on fires don’t come from within a burning house or car, etc. and are usually on cell phones, especially in the county. You’d be amazed at how many people can’t tell you where they are or even answer questions correctly to help us figure it out. All other info is useless if we don’t know where you are. Please, think that through first before you call.

21 Jesse December 13, 2012 at 10:49 am

I find when I need to call 911 in my location, all cell calls are routed to Buffalo NY Fire/Police.

I’m in a suburb of Buffalo, I always ask to be routed to Amherst Fire/Police and they switch me right over.

Helps in not repeating yourself when seconds count.

22 hart December 13, 2012 at 11:50 am

Only thing I would add on here is to make sure you are safe first before calling. My mother’s house burned down many years ago and my mother called from the burning house, she almost got trapped in the house as a result. The dispatcher didn’t know this and asked if she could stay on the line, which just further confused my mother.

23 Evan December 13, 2012 at 12:35 pm

I’ve only had to call 911 two or three times in my life, but the last one was just a couple of days ago. I was driving down a divided highway at night and two cars passed me going the wrong way.

24 Rick December 13, 2012 at 1:20 pm

An excellent post, but there is one thing missing, especially for cellphone users: make sure you are transferred to LOCAL 911 service!

Case in point: in early 2003, I was driving from Brooklyn to New Jersey at dusk. As I passed the last parking ramp before the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (b/w Brooklyn and Staten Island), I spotted a civilian SUV with a man standing outside, apparently taking video of the underside of the bridge. Alarmed by this (what does DHS tell us to do?), I whipped out my phone and dialed 911 — and had the most frustrating call of my life.

It never occurred to me there would be a problem — but whoever answered the call didn’t know the Belt Parkway from baked beans… he asked me how to spell “Verrazano”… I had been moving too quickly past to capture the SUV’s tag number… I tried to explain what I’d seen and was getting nowhere. Exasperated, I finally hung up having accomplished nothing. [The good news: no one attacked the bridge after all.]

Only after we got home and I spoke with an EMS friend did I learn that 911 calls from cell phones could be routed anywhere in the country. I was probably talking with someone from Sioux City or Denver (no wonder he couldn’t spell “Verrazano”).

So if you dial 911 from a cellphone, be prepared to specify your locality, as in “Chesterfield 911, please” or “I need Virginia State Police 911, to report an accident…” You may even have to tell them what state you’re calling from.

25 SL December 13, 2012 at 2:24 pm

I agree but…
I come from an extensive Search & Rescue and emergency response background. I have always been told, and told others, start with your name and location. That way if you get cut off they can find you or call back.
Second, often a dispatcher will first ask if you need police, fire, or ambulance so know who you’re calling for.
I will often ask if anyone has called 911 yet, the last thing they need is 10 people calling about the same incident tying up phone lines and dispatchers.
Finally, remember the dispatcher is just a call centre (in BC it’s actually outsourced to E-Com) so they can’t offer advice or do anything over the phone. All they can do is collect information and pass it on to the respective agency/personnel.

Play safe,

26 Christopher December 13, 2012 at 2:39 pm

When we were taking CCW courses, they give a lot of guidance on what to say if you ever have to call 911 for responding with your weapon. There’s a lot you can do with 911 to make sure the authorities can respond quickly and effectively to protect the public safety, while at the same time helping yourself legally and physically from the encounter.

Things such as:
“I’ve been assaulted, and had to shoot to defend myself. Please send an ambulance. I’m at this location, and this is what I’m wearing. My attacker is wearing this, but is on the ground bleeding. If the guy who attacked me survives, I want to press charges.”

followed by additional information:

“This is my name, my description, I have a valid CCW. Please let me know when the police are arriving so that I can secure my weapon for everyone’s safety.”

It was darned-useful information.

As far as the Briefcases go, the Classic Briefcase in Large, colored in Dark Coffee Brown lined with pigskin would match my holster and belt beautifully!

27 EMT Alex December 14, 2012 at 10:49 am

Great post! I can’t tell you how many times we’ve responded priority uno for the “life alert bracelet” only to find out the person is constipated or some other non-immediate emergency. Always err on the side of caution, but don’t be a jerk. The risk to our lives jumps very high when we turn those lights on and drive “through” red lights. If you’re familiar with your medical issue and you can wait please tell the dispatcher as much.

28 Jason December 14, 2012 at 5:39 pm

Thank you for posting this. I am a Police Communications Supervisor with Phoenix Police department with 13 years on. I have worked both as a 911 operator and dispatcher prior to taking a promotion. This is highly educational and accurate. The 911 dispatchers often times get forgotten about, but you are truly the first responders. Officers, Firefighters, and EMT get to respond to the scenes and get some closure. We only get to imagine what scenes are like and only get half the story – and I truly believe imagination can be much worse than reality.
Thank you for your service to your community

29 James December 15, 2012 at 4:25 am

I’ve called the “emergency” number twice during my adult years. Once to report a fight that spilled out of a bar and into my apartment’s parking lot, and the other to report a drunk driver that came through my workplace. Both times I was asked what, where, and if I felt someone was in immediate danger.

30 Scott December 15, 2012 at 4:51 pm

Mile markers exist for a reason.

31 Carl M December 16, 2012 at 2:02 pm

In our state, all 911 calls go to State Patrol. Your state may vary, but either way, you need to immediately state that you need such and such a city’s fire/police/ambulance so that they can transfer you quickly. When you get transferred, state your location as best as you can. Most of us call from the most convenient phone, which is usually a cell phone, so never assume anyone knows where you are. You are being recorded, both during the call and for several minutes after the call is supposedly complete, (in other words, they’re still listening when you hang up.) State as clearly as possible the issue; it’s really difficult to be understood when you’re excited, so you need to be aware of that. They’ll want to know who you are and your number where they can call you back. Often the first responders will need to call you directly and it’s important that you know your phone number (excitement tends to make folks forget really important stuff!)

32 Gerald December 17, 2012 at 5:57 pm

“You’d be amazed at how many people can’t tell you where they are or even answer questions correctly to help us figure it out. All other info is useless if we don’t know where you are. Please, think that through first before you call.”


i might add before calling 911, 112 whatever. to consider this questions.

“Do I have to?”

“Is there no other way?”

Never call for stupid reasons. there are people calling fire department because their laundromat is leaking… no joke…

Calling Police? Think you might be getting just 2+ idiots in uniforms that wont help with anything… (they have bad days as anynone else)

I work nightshifts as security patrol and (had) to call emergency for dozens of times.

Always ask yourself “is it worth it?”. Dont waste anyones time for shaky suspicions.

A short nortification about dangers on the Road, broken traffic light wont be a problem of course.

33 Ti December 17, 2012 at 6:20 pm

My college campus police tell us to just call 911 for anything, even if it isan’t an emergency. This way their computer shows all sorts of information about the call such as physical location and your phone number.

If you call the non-emergency number, they have to manually enter it from a radio call from dispatch.

34 Ethan December 17, 2012 at 7:07 pm

Fantastic post! I have recently started working as a 911 dispatcher, and this information was spot on. I just have 2 tips for everyone out there. 1. holding the phone closer to your mouth and speaking even louder won’t let me hear you any better, it just sounds like you’re trying to eat the phone. 2. If you give your child a cell phone to play with, make sure the battery is taken out. I couldn’t tell you how many open 911 lines I receive from small children “playing” with a phone.

35 GR December 18, 2012 at 9:26 am

I have only called once: a very small child was riding his bike down the left lane of a non-residential street (needless to say, without a helmet or parental supervision).

36 Mike December 18, 2012 at 9:05 pm

Hi, I work with Scouts and when we have a campfire in one Kansas county, I get to call 911 for a burn permit. “Hi I want to start a fire at x address, is there a burn ban in effect?” Nope call us when it’s out. Many police departments don’t seem to have accessible non-emergency numbers.

37 LeRainDrop December 19, 2012 at 11:43 pm

I second Rick (24) that if you are calling 911 from a cell phone, you need to be sure you’re reaching the correct locality. My colleague actually witnessed a pedestrian get hit by an SUV, the victim was left lying in the road bleeding and severely injured, and the SUV spend off. This happened to occur in an area of the street close to where county lines split. I can’t remember exactly how this played out, but essentially the wrong county was connected and the other county disputed which side of the line the accident seemed to have happened (based only on the caller’s description), and so NO ONE came to the scene for over an hour. And this was in the middle of the city of Atlanta! Also, count Atlanta among thoses cities/towns where the police specifically instruct us that ALL calls must go to 911, non-emergency ones included, until you have a case number or officer assigned. I have called once before and was put on hold for upwards fo five minutes.

38 Ben Kalafut December 20, 2012 at 10:30 pm

Very useful article.

One remark: In some areas, the police shut down their non-emergency number at night. Tucson was one of them. To reach them to report an unruly party or crime older than 15 minutes, it was necessary to dial 911. Never felt right, but it was the only way to do it.

39 Ronan December 22, 2012 at 12:53 pm

On occasion, especially for noise complaints, my wife and I have called the police directly, and were instructed to call 911 here in the Bethlehem PA area.
I personally don’t like calling 911 unless it’s an actual emergency, but have been instructed to do otherwise. It’s actually very confusing. I agree with this article, but apparently, in practice in this area, most do not hold true.

40 Dan December 27, 2012 at 12:59 pm

I’ve had reason to call 911 on multiple occassions, for administrative purposes, reporting crimes, and lost child situations. I think it helps to have a short phrase to establish the situation. Some of mine: “this is a test call of the 911 service on a new phone system; is there any data appearing on your end that you’d like me to confirm or change?” “I just saw a group of kids with flashlights and bags in XYZ cemetary.” and (the worst), “My son is missing; he’s 7 yrs old and has autism.” In the first case, they’ll put me on hold, if there’s something more urgent happening on another line. In the last case, it was rapid fire Q&A, and the cops and dogs were in my driveway in less than 5 minutes. Knowing what to expect (in terms of questions from the dispatcher) is very helpful. I’ve been discussing with my local LE group the option of scheduling calls to 911 (during typically slow times) for my children to practice calling in. (Two boys with autism; two girls with drama issues.) My son has incorrectly called 911 before, and we got a call back & visit when he hung up. (Very understanding officer, but, then, the local LE knows us pretty well, now….) Good article. Thanks.

41 Gerry December 28, 2012 at 2:49 am

Just a heads up, it is not illegal to take video footage or photographs, in a public area. So in spite of the propaganda DHS spouts. Someone using a video camera in public is never a reason to call 911.

42 Jamie December 28, 2012 at 4:36 am

I’ve had to call 911 many times for many different reasons. Accidents, crimes and medical emergencies. Just something to add to the “who” portion of the call if it happens to be a senior citizen having medical trouble. You must get as much information as you can about the patient to forward to the operator. If it’s an individual complaining of chest pain or they’re not feeling well, the operator will need their age and the symptoms. They will also need anything that you have done to assist the individual. i.e. if you have given them aspirin, whether you are currently performing CPR, etc.

43 Eb Sal December 30, 2012 at 4:25 am

In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting, be aware that every 911 caller is being recorded. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. The identities will not be changed to protect the innocent, because to prosecutors, everybody is guilty unless the plea bargain agreement establishes otherwise. Do NOT do a Zimmerman and blather on and on about “these *ssholes always get away”. What may sound like innocuous conversation to you can be turned into intent, motive, and means later on.

44 Markbahrain January 1, 2013 at 3:09 pm

The author “forgets” to mention that everything you say to a 911 operator is recorded and will be used in court. So, let’s say you defend yourself, first rule is say nothing to the police, this includes the 911 operator.

45 joe January 1, 2013 at 9:42 pm

I’m a fireman in a medium city, so ill throw some comments out. If you are on the highway, please look carefully before calling. We come to expect it and plan accordingly but usually we get someone saying they’re on interstate 1 at the first st exit. When they are actually a half mile up and looking at an exit ahead sign. We usually come from an exit up to correct for this, but sometimes people screw up so bad even that doesn’t help.

If you are driving by a fire and you stop to call it in, please be aware of where your car is parked. We have a lot of big trucks coming onto small city streets. If you put your car in the wrong spot you can block a hydrant, block us from turning onto the block, or block other fire truck movements we need to make. I’ve been to fires where we pull up to see a car parked partially blocking the street with the driver outside pointing at he building. Thanks for the effort, but I can see the smoke and flames from down the block, the burning building is obvious.

Really that’s the biggest advice if you call in a fire, get out of the way please. In my city a first alarm assingment is 3 engines, 2 ladders, a rescue and several chief vehicles. We have a lot of trucks coming down the street, backing up, and 24+ guys moving hoses and ladders. Give us space, if you have important information like someone might be trapped, stay on the sidewalk and look for the guy in the front right seat. In most places he’s the company officer, he’ll be the guy to tell. If you can point out what room the person was last in or how to get to fire that can help too.

46 Andrew January 6, 2013 at 12:24 pm

“John December 13, 2012 at 8:56 am
Thank you for the great post! As a member of the largest volunteer fire department in the great state of Nebraska there are three things I would like to add. First, it is important to remember when responders are called, they are responding with only the information the dispatcher obtained, so as stated provide the most complete picture as possible to the dispatcher so responders know to what they are responding. Second, please remember, even in emergency situations responders will not always be there as soon as you hope. From the time you call, to giving information to the dispatcher, to dispatching the responders takes a number of minutes.”

Not sure where you are from John, but at the Dispatch Center I work at, almost every single medical/fire call whether it be emergency response or non emergency is dispatched out within 30 seconds.

47 Tim Miller January 13, 2013 at 7:25 am

Good tips James. I think it’s great to hear that all American citizens and others can really count on their police officers when they are in danger. By simply call 911, the police officers will come to the rescue.

It’s really different in my country actually. In my country, when we are in jeopardy, we can only count on people around us, like neighbors simply because our police officers are really not reliable.

And the worst thing is, for example, if someone just broke into our house and stole something, and we call police, the police, yeah, that’s right, the police, will ask us to pay for the cost of helping us. This is really horrible. Really.

48 claire February 24, 2013 at 8:56 am

Hi. Could someone tell me on this I’m 16 and hoping to get into emergency. Dispatcher when I’m 18 but iv’e been in trouble with police nothing big just drunk and out with my friends and beeing under age and drinking out the streets iv’e been took home or been took to the police station till my mum comes and gets me or iv’e been charged for breach of the piece?

49 Aubrey February 28, 2013 at 12:28 pm

Nice post.
However, things are different in some areas. It has been noticed at an increasing rate that in the city of Detroit, a person is lucky if they have someone respond in an hour or two (if at all). It is a sad time for a once beautiful city that there are not nearly enough people (or funding) to help in a true emergency. It has become the forgotten city. A city where the Fire Department staff has to bring in their own toilet paper and there are only a handful of Police Officers to help a massive city environment. It is not just out in the country where help is sometimes too late. In instances where one is near the border of another city and Detroit, the person is far better off requesting emergency services of the bordering city. The bordering cities do help within reasonable means.

@ joe – Great points all around in regards to leaving room for the FD to do their job. My grandfather was a volunteer Fireman and I have a good friend that is also a Fireman. It takes a really strong (emotionally & physically) person to do it. It is a difficult career choice, but it is also wonderful that there are people that want to help.

50 Caden May 11, 2013 at 1:40 am

Please don’t tell your dispatcher “Send the police! Hurry!” and then hang up. It won’t get help to you any faster, and might even delay the process.
And remember, when you hang up before someone answers, then call right back, the dispatchers still have to answer your abandoned call. You’re just making the hold times longer by hanging up.
Oh, and PLEASE remember to tell someone if you had a positive experience. Everyone thinks to thank the Police, EMTs, or Firefighters, but people rarely remember the poor dispatchers!

51 JohnBoy June 1, 2013 at 4:11 pm

As a career firefighter, I can really relate. We get a lot of BS calls through 911 that require us to respond under code (lights and sirens) to an incident that is either a non-emergency or doesn’t require the FD’s presence on scene.

If you see fire in the woods while going down the road, and there are no houses in the immediate vicinity, call the admin line. If you must call 911, let them know that there are no structures in danger at the time. However, if the fire is climbing trees (crowning), it is serious and you should dial 911 and tell them the situation and get the !&@$ out of dodge.

If there is a vehicle accident and the car is off the road, you see no smoke, and everyone one is out of the car and appears to be fine, make sure the dispatcher knows. There is no need in having a 20-ton truck hauling tail down the road, risking both the lives of the firefighters and other drivers , if there is no fire, injuries, or entrapment.

I would highly recommend getting ahold of your local department’s SOPs and skimming through them to know how the FD will respond to certain situations, and what they expect from you as the person with the emergency. These records are public information and should be easy to obtain upon request. They are, after all, a taxpayer funded organization.

I would also recommend volunteering if you are able. There is nothing more manly than helping people.

52 Thomas Bliss July 8, 2013 at 7:17 pm

I teach First Aid classes and we always talk about when and how to call 911.

Sometimes I’m working with ESL students and they have no idea how to call 911 and give the information the 911 dispatcher needs. That is almost a whole class in itself.

I ask my students what are the first words a 911 dispatcher asks? You would be surprised at the answers. But in my experience it is almost always “What is your Emergency” or “What are you reporting”? Having the quick specifics of what and where are so very important… and staying calm when reporting an emergency.

Great advice, I’ll be sharing this on my FB and Twitter.

Northwest Response

53 Cathy K August 23, 2013 at 5:40 pm

If you can put your name, address, and phone number on your phone or by it, as if you have vistors or kids or yourself you area shook up and can not remember anything. I gave that info to a mother that was very sick, and worked with a 4 yr old a few times when not busy how to call 911 and he needed it one time and saved the mommy!

54 James P October 13, 2013 at 3:51 am

Last year I witnessed three auto collisions (I still refuse to call them “accidents”) where I called 911. I used to commute 1-2 hours per day to school so I ended up seeing a lot. Anyway, when they answered, they immediately asked:
1. my location
2. is an ambulance needed
3. description of the event
4. my name and # to call back
They repeated “Don’t hang up” throughout the calls. I also noticed each time that my cheapo phone would display that it was in Emergency Response Mode, which I assume activates the GPS. While making the calls, I would be out of the car, checking to make sure everyone was conscious.

55 Josh E November 24, 2013 at 5:21 am

As a 911 dispatcher, this is a great read.

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