What Actually Happens When You Call 911 – One day you’re home alone baby sitting your little brother. You decide you’re going to bake some cookies and pre-heat the oven, then you wait fifteen minutes and return to put the cookies in the oven. Afterwards you go back to the couch and reach into the baby cradle to cuddle your little brother, but to your horror you realize that you’re cuddling the cookies and that it’s your baby brother in the oven!
As you rush into the kitchen you pull your kid brother out of the oven and he’s fine,but sporting some serious grill marks and it’s clear you’re going to need help. You immediately call 911, but what’s actually happening on the other side of that phone? Every nation has its own emergency numbers, but the original emergency telephone number dates back to 1957, when the American National Association of Fire Chiefs first recommended that a single telephone number be used to report a fire, no matter where in the nation it took place.
Then ten years later in 1967, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration suggested to the president that a single telephone number be used to report any emergency- not just fires- everywhere in the country. This would simplify matters greatly in an emergency, as up until that point citizens in need of help would often have to remember and dial one of several different numbers depending on the type of emergency they faced.
When you’re panicking because you accidentally stuck your baby brother in the oven, the last thing you need to do is figure out if you should call the fire department or the hospital first. The FCC then met with the American Telephone and Telegraph Company- otherwise known as AT&T to non-nerds- and asked them to find a way to implement a single number nationwide that could be used for all emergencies.
911 was chosen by AT&T because the phone number had not been used as a prefix for any other number- office code, area code, or service code. The three digits also made it extremely easy to remember and dial in an emergency. Within two decades over half of America had access to 911 emergency services, and today about 96% of the geographic United States is covered by some type of 911 service, even Canada has adopted the number as its own emergency alerting service.
So what exactly happens when you call 911 to report an emergency? The first thing is that you’ll be asked the nature of your specific emergency, this is so that the dispatcher can quickly ascertain what resources they need to put on alert. Often your address is already known to the dispatcher thanks to enhanced 911 services,specially if you are calling from a landline.
Unfortunately due to 20-year old technology that predates smart phones, 911 has a much harder time locating calls made from cell phones today, though federal upgrade programs across the country are slowly bringing more modern capabilities to 911 services. Whether the dispatcher is aware of your location or not, they will ask you for your address just to verify that the information they are looking at is correct.
At that point, an automated dispatch is sent to the relevant emergency agency- fire, medical,or police. Sometimes the dispatcher won’t tell you that help is already on the way, and may keep asking you questions about your emergency. What you probably don’t know is that help is already en route to you, and the followup questions are being relayed to the responding units so they can better treat you or protect you.
Some of the questions may even seem silly, but there is a very strict guideline and checklist that dispatchers must follow and research has shown that sticking to the script often reveals important details. For most emergency responders their mobile data terminals will automatically update with the information being input by the dispatcher while on the phone with you.
That’s why you very rarely will hear a dispatcher actually begin to speak to an emergency responder directly and instead keeps their attention and focus solely on you. The dispatcher will always stay on the line with you until help arrives, and often will give you further instructions to help aid responding officers, medical personnel, or fire fighters. The dispatcher will also act as a soothing voice to help you fight your natural instinct to panic, and help keep you level headed during an emergency.
With medical emergencies the dispatcher might instruct you in some basic first aid to conduct while emergency crews are on their way, and in the case of a criminal event the responder will typically tell you to get to safety as quickly as you can. One thing you should never do if you dial 911, even if you do it by accident, is to hang up on the dispatcher.
If you accidentally dial 911 simply tell the dispatcher that it was an accident, because if you hang up on 911 they will dispatch a police patrol to your location immediately to check on you. This is because of hostage situations or domestic abuse scenarios where the caller is terrified or forced to hang up on their end before getting caught.
Another thing to remember is that no matter how silly the questions you’re being asked might sound to you in an emergency, you might be giving the dispatcher information vital to the emergency responders enroute to you. Don’t lose your patience with the dispatcher and answer each question as best as you’re able, and know that even though it doesn’t seem like it, help is already on the way and they know just as much as you’ve told the dispatcher.
911 has helped save countless lives, and with new features such as video calling, photo and text messaging being made available through upgrade programs, it will continue to be a life-saving tool for years to come. Have you ever had to call 911? Let us know about it in the comments.