An Introduction To The World Of 911
Dispatch: 911, where is your emergency?
Elderly Female Caller: Well, this really isn’t an emergency. Dispatch: Ok, well, what’s going on?
Elderly Female Caller: I sat down for dinner tonight. I made soup. I called my husband to the table. We were having our dinner.
Dispatch: What exactly do you want to report?
Elderly Female Caller: Well, my husband passed out in his soup.
Dispatch: Is he breathing?
Elderly Female Caller: No.
Ihave a gunshot wound to the head, a shoplifter in custody at Walmart, a few traffic stops, and a guy masturbating at the park,” I said, handing my headset to my partner.
“Sounds good. Have a good break. See you in fifteen minutes.”
Fifteen whole minutes of freedom. I can really take the time to reflect on my morning, the pursuit that ended in a crash on the highway, the death of the elderly man at the nursing home, and the 18 traffic stops I’d completed before consuming a single sip of my coffee.
Only joking, of course. Fifteen minutes is enough to refill my water, go pee, get back to my station, and plug in so the next person can have their fifteen minutes.
At the 911 Communications Center, we are always on.
There’s an expectation that when you lift the phone and dial those three numbers, someone will help you. We’ve trained entire generations to know that help is merely a call away. Unfortunately, it has become evident that the population of the United States of America has no idea what an actual emergency is.
People call 911 to report that the sheets on a hotel bed are soiled, management refuses to acknowledge their complaint, McDonald’s was out of French fries, or their cat was stuck up a tree. 911 dispatchers have become a complaint line for a nation’s worth of issues because, above anything else, we always answer the phone.
On the contrary, non-emergency line callers will report that their neighbor’s house is fully engulfed in flames.
I can no longer count the times I’ve heard cries of pain and sorrow. Of mothers who have just lost their child, the shrill passion and agony from a domestic violence situation, or the last breath of a person who has just died while I sit on the other end of the line, unable to do anything but listen.
“How was your break?” Laura asked as she handed me back my headset.
“Oh, it was wonderful! I went to the coffee shop, got a latte, and chatted up that new girl. She went on and on about how excited she was to return to school. Did you know she’s studying to become an esthetician?”
“Water and pee then?” she smiled.
“Well, you didn’t miss anything. The dead guy is still dead,
the Walmart thief is en route to jail, and they cleared the park; told him to move along and find a more appropriate place to pleasure himself.” Laura left, off to the next desk, to relieve another coworker.
I am a 911 Dispatcher, and this is my story.
In 2015, according to the National 911 Progress Report, 911 received 213 million calls in the United States. These calls come from landlines, cellular, VoIP1 lines, MLTS2, and now Text-To- 911. After using one of these to place your call to 911, your call is routed, based on the type of device you are using, to your designated PSAP3.
Another call showed up on my screen—a barking dog complaint. I checked the location history and saw the same call type in the history field almost daily for the past two months. I looked at the RP’s4 name, Mr. Kenneth Jones. I know this man at this point; I speak to him daily. I giggled audibly at the fact that I interacted with this man more than my best friend.
“Dispatch to Charlie-20, barking dog complaint – 11230 54th Ave to your screen,” I said as I attached his number to the call on the computer.
1 Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) is technology that allows you to make voice calls using the internet instead of a phone line.
2 Multi-Line Telephone System
3 Public Safety Answering Points
4 Reporting Party – The person who calls 911 to report something, is called the RP.
“Charlie-20 copy,” he likely sighed heavily in his patrol car, wondering what he did to upset me. One of the privileges of being me is that I decide which officer does what. Give me some sass again, Charlie-15 and your day will be littered with barking dogs, lengthy reports, and old people wanting to explain everything that’s happened to them since 1940.
It doesn’t always work out that way. In this case, Charlie-20 had been my only available unit to send. From the second we get your call processed via your location, the CFS5 shows in our CAD6 computer, and the dispatcher can see the call. Based on pre-determined factors such as county vs. city jurisdiction or specific fire grid, the address is pre-loaded with different response types based on your need. For example, if it is a police call, it will recommend the closest unit or the specific officer assigned to your beat for the particular shift or day. If it is a fire or aid call, it will send the closest units based on your fire grid.
I took a sip of coffee. It’s cold. I know I should switch to a cold brew, but oddly, I’ve gotten used to cold hot coffee and prefer it to room-temperature cold brew. I looked at the clock for the 100th time in an hour. A ding goes off in my ear, bringing my attention back to the CAD for another call.
It was a 911 hang-up.
5 Call For Service – Someone called 911 and we created a ticket. The tickets are called CFS.
6 Computer Aided Dispatch – This is a system where the dispatcher and call takers can enter information, prioritize calls, and identify the status of responders who are in the field. It’s the most important software we have as dispatchers.
This happens several times an hour and is routine. Sometimes they are pocket dials, or “butt dials”7 as I like to call them. Sometimes they’re not. The call-taker attempts to talk to whoever is there, and if they don’t receive a response, they also attempt a TTY/TDD8 challenge. On the off chance that it is a deaf or hard-of-hearing individual is calling, they would use special telecommunications equipment to call 911. After a few more seconds with no response, they document the call’s general location as given by the phone system, disconnect, and then attempt a call back the number.
For landlines, the process of a 911 hang-up is straightforward. If you call 911 from a landline, the call is traced through the phone number. Every landline phone number is attached to an exact location. 911 receives the ANI/ALI9, preloaded with a name, address, phone number, etc.
Cellular calls are slightly more sophisticated. Depending on the type of cell phone you are using, the call is routed to the nearest Public Safety Answering Point, called a PSAP, based on your geographical location. The geographical location varies based on the strength of your signal and the towers your cell phone is pulling from. Larger companies' smartphones, paid lines, and cell phones will provide better locations.
Cell phones come into the CAD system at either Phase 1 or 2. Phase 1 is almost useless for ANI/ALI. It chooses the PSAP based entirely on the cellular tower the phone was last pinging
7 I’d like to have a spreadsheet one day, that will show me how many hours of my life I’ve spent listening to folk’s butts.
8 Teletypewriters (TTY), Telecommunications Device for the Def (TDD)
9 Automatic Number Identification (ANI) and Automatic Location Identification (ALY)
If your phone pings off a tower in another county, across the water, or even another country, your location could be challenging to track by phone. In most cases, Phase 1 is worthless.
Phase 2 phone calls come into the CAD system, and their accuracy varies. However, we can generally pinpoint the location within a few meters. It is not, by any means, a perfect science. A 911 dispatcher is taught never to rely solely on Phase 2 hits; it is meant as a tool and a guide. Our first question will always be, “Where is your emergency?”
No answer on callback, according to the CAD screen. The call is now ready to dispatch. I debated whether I should give it to Charlie-20 again. He was clear of the barking dog complaint. I scanned the screen for anyone else who may be available. Charlie-20 has done nothing to me today and therefore deserves no punishment. Charlie-15 was also available, and although he hadn’t done anything to me yet, he’s done me dirty in the past, and I hold grudges.
“Dispatch to Charlie-15, 911 cellular hang-up in the area of 1502 115th Street – no answer on callback details to your screen.” I imagined Charlie-20 breathing a sigh of relief that I chose another victim for what promised to be a boring call.
Sometimes I wonder whether these dramas I make up in my head about the officers are remotely based on truth. It would be easy to ask sometime in passing. I decided to keep playing it out in my head a long time ago and never know the truth. It keeps me entertained and makes the day go by faster.
“Hey, did you hear what happened with Sheila the other day?” Jon, my coworker from the next cubicle, asked between calls.
“I did not,” I said.
“She was dispatching on the north radio, and we got this call about a dude who had been run over by a van. The driver was this neighbor with whom he’d been feuding for several months. An ongoing issue –David-14, I copy, I’ll show you en route,” Jon said.
We never get to complete a story. I’ve gotten so used to hearing stories in snips and clips.
“Anyway,” Jon continued, “Terrance was the call-taker and saw that we’ve got extensive history at their address. Unfortunately, we cannot send aid directly to the scene since we have no idea where the suspect is. Also, he’s known to carry guns. Sheila puts the call out ok. But she never ran the freaking suspect!”
Running a suspect is a fundamental and essential part of our job. For example, if we have an individual’s name and date of birth, we can run them through the local, state, and national databases. From this, we can determine if the suspect has any outstanding warrants, if they’re flagged for violent history, etc.
“Wow. I cannot believe that. Shelia is not that new here. I can’t believe how lax the training has gotten. Back when I was in training, if I didn’t run the suspect on an in-progress emergency before the officers got on scene, I would have been hit with the cattle prod,” I said.
“Right?” Jon laughs. “It was especially awful this time because we started to stage the aid crew. The dude was badly injured, as you can imagine being run over by a freaking van!”
“Sure. Hold on,” I said, then pressed the pedal beneath my desk. “Copy Charlie-15 checked the area, and nothing was found. I’ll show you clear of that and send you a parking complaint at 15th near Washington Street. Blue van on the scene for several days, no plates.”
The poor sap.
“Anyway, so was the guy wanted for something then?” I turn back to Jon.
“No, even better. The guy lives a mile up the street, which
she would have known had she run the dude. The call taker gives care instructions to the RP, who I think was the wife or girlfriend,” Jon’s stories are never short.
“She is just babysitting the situation until the officers arrive on the scene. Guess where Miss Sheila stages the aid crew?” Jon pauses. “Right at the dude’s house a mile away!”
“Oh shit. Did anyone get hurt?” I asked in genuine shock.
“Thankfully, no.” Jon continued his rant about how Sheila received no reprimand from the supervisors and how it’s so unfair because he was reprimanded for something minor in comparison.
This was a responder safety issue, and Jon felt Shelia should have been talked to. I agreed that responder safety was a matter of utmost importance.
Dispatchers are the guardians of the guardians. A dispatcher’s primary function is the safety of our firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, and police officers. Our questions, however annoying they might appear, are there to provide you with the best service by getting you the most appropriate response to your needs. It’s also to protect the people we have coming to help you.
It’s vital that we know if weapons are on scene or accessible so we do not send unarmed fire and aid personnel into an unsafe situation. In addition, we need to know about drug and or alcohol usage because people under the influence respond differently than those who are not. A firefighter, paramedic, EMT, or an officer’s primary job function is to protect and serve their community. Your tax dollars fund them and are there for you.
“Dispatch to Charlie-20 – 911 VoIP line – 2323 Monroe Street, brief open line with what sounded like a child playing on the phone, no answer on callback,” I said.
“Charlie-20, show me en route.”
VoIP and MTLS lines are only as good as the person who owns them. If you have one of these phone lines, please ensure your home or business address and information are always accurate with the company.
There are endless stories of 911 calls from these types of phones. Only the addresses we received were with the ANI/ALI from the VoIP line. This would be okay if the information were kept up to date, but it often isn’t. The RPs move, and no, they can’t speak freely on the phone, or the call is disconnected before the dispatcher can confirm an address. 911 calls are often made under the most horrific circumstances.
One such example happened a few years ago. A colleague of mine received a call from a domestic violence victim. She got all the correct information; victim name, suspect name, weapon, description, vehicle description, etc. The police arrived at the address in the call, and no one was home. The dispatcher had gotten all the information but did not confirm the address. She relied solely on the ANI/ALI from the VoIP line. The subjects moved a few months before the event and still need to update their address with their phone provider. They were not even in the same state. These phones are programmed to dial 911. They will dial the closest PSAP based on the pre-programmed address, not their physical location. Thankfully, the dispatcher was able to reconnect with the victim in time to connect her with her local 911 Communications Center–it ended well. Unfortunately, we aren’t always so lucky.
“Charlie-20 on scene.”
“Copy on scene.” I change his status in CAD. As dispatchers, we always think ahead of the officer—ever ready for all outcomes. In this case, I put him on scene. I am now anticipating several potential developments from him.
The most likely will be, “Show me clear, false alarm, a child playing with a phone.” That made the most sense in this particular case. However, my job is always to play the what- if game.
What if, this time, it was a child trying to call 911 because his parents were fighting? They noticed and then took the phone away. If the officer just accepted this call as a kid playing with a phone and failed to go and check it out, there could be potential for all sorts of disasters. Someone called for help, and the officer went.