Knowing the Basics About 9-1-1 Could Save Your Life


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The 9-1-1 call taker knows exactly where I am because my phone has GPS, right? Well…not exactly. This is one of many common misconceptions the public has about the capabilities of the 9-1-1 system in the United States. Understanding how the system works and what its capabilities are (and aren’t) can literally save your life. Let’s examine several common misconceptions about 9-1-1.

They know exactly where I am – I’ve seen what they can do on TV!

“9-1-1, what is the exact location of your emergency,” is the greeting most often heard when the call taker (telecommunicator) answers the phone. “Don’t they know where I am?” many callers wonder. The introduction in the 1960s of a national number (9-1-1) for accessing emergency services was undoubtedly a huge leap forward for public safety. However, the original infrastructure was based on landline telephones. When a caller calls from a landline, the physical address associated with phone is provided to 9-1-1 by the telephone service provider. While the 9-1-1 system has evolved significantly in recent years to accommodate newer technologies, such as wireless phones, the locations provided are anything but precise. The Federal Communications Commission maintains minimum requirements for location accuracy provided by wireless carriers; however, the accuracy can vary greatly depending on the location where the call is placed and the technology utilized.

Not convinced? Watch this news expose from Iowa or another from Michigan here.

My call is answered by the nearest police station

9-1-1 centers are usually not housed within the nearest police station.  9-1-1 centers are specially-equipped call centers designed to handle emergency calls by highly trained telecommunicators.  9-1-1 centers are often standalone entities, centrally located in an area with redundant phone lines, power, and good line of site visibility for their radio systems.

Additionally, it is worth noting that thousands of wireless calls are routed to the wrong 9-1-1 center every day. How could this be? Wireless calls are routed to the 9-1-1 center that is associated with the cell tower the phone is accessing. Wireless network coverage is provided by saturating an area with towers whose coverage overlaps one another. At the point at which a wireless call is placed, the tower with the strongest available signal at that moment is selected to carry your call. Many factors – where you are standing, interference, the volume of cell phone traffic – determine which tower is selected. In fact, you can place a call from the same spot at two different times and be routed through different towers. When calling from a location near the border of two 9-1-1 centers’ areas, this can make the difference between your call be routed to the correct 9-1-1 center and the one in the next city or county over. Fortunately, every 9-1-1 center has a protocol in place for forwarding a misrouted call to the correct center, but if you are unable to effectively communicate, that can be a difficult determination to make.

Tip: There are obvious exceptions to this rule, such as escaping a burning building or driving down the interstate, but when given the choice, always dial 9-1-1 from a landline or ensure your 9-1-1 center has up-to-date information about you and your family through a system like Smart911.com.

Why did the 9-1-1 call taker ask so many questions instead of just sending help?!

9-1-1 call takers are required to ask certain questions in order to ensure they are sending the right resources to the right location, as well as providing the caller with the most appropriate pre-arrival instructions that may assist while awaiting the arrival trained rescuers, such as CPR. Different types of emergencies require different types of responses: one police officer versus multiple; law enforcement and emergency medical services (EMS); police, fire, and EMS; so on and so forth. There are a limited number of emergency resources in any community, so taking a few extra seconds to determine the appropriate response protects these limited resources for future emergencies while also ensuring you get the right help quickly.

Another key point is that most 9-1-1 centers are organized to simultaneously process calls (answer the phone) and dispatch police, fire and EMS units over the radio. So, while you’re still answering the telecommunicator’s questions, another person in the 9-1-1 center is dispatching responders and communicating the information you are providing to them.  Utilizing a standardized script streamlines this process for all involved and ensures consistency in response. There are situations during which callers can’t adequately answer these questions, possibly a child calling for her unconscious mother who just had a seizure. This is another scenario where it is helpful for the 9-1-1 center and emergency responders to have access to additional information through a solution such as Smart911.com.

Tip:  9-1-1 telecommunicators are trained to ask the questions designed to most quickly get you the right assistance… listen to their questions closely and answer them to the best of your ability

Why can’t I just send a text message to 9-1-1 when I need help?

There is considerable interest and several compelling use cases around sending SMS text to 9-1-1. The more compelling use cases are for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, or for an individual who is hiding from a captor or intruder and is afraid to speak. At present, the 9-1-1 infrastructure is unable to route an SMS text to the correct 9-1-1 center because text messages do not carry location data. While there are a handful of 9-1-1 centers that can accept text messages, they can only do so from specific wireless providers and under very specific conditions. In the majority of the country, if you were to send a text message sent to 9-1-1, your message simply wouldn’t get delivered. Contact your local agency to determine what options are available in your community.

My police department posts to Twitter when something’s going on, why can’t I just tweet or Facebook my emergency to them?

The short answer to this question is that most 9-1-1 centers do not monitor the various social media sites for distress posts or cries for help. If they were to start doing so, it would require considerable training and protocol development to determine how to best respond to these types of “calls.” Furthermore, while there are still certain challenges with the 9-1-1 system identifying a caller’s exact location, those problems would be greatly magnified through the introduction social media.  While there have been instances of people successfully summoning emergency assistance through social media, it is anything but reliable because there isn’t an easy way for “friends” or “followers” to quickly identify and communicate with the correct emergency responders in your area.  Further complicating the issue is that due to a large number of false or malicious calls, 9-1-1 centers can’t react to a referral call as effectively as they can for a direct emergency call.

Tip:  If you witness or are experiencing an emergency, call 9-1-1.  The best way to get help quickly is to call directly, not post through social media.

Someone else will call, right?

While there is not generally a shortage of calls to 9-1-1 for an actual emergency, you should never assume that someone else has already called or will call. If you have any doubt, always call 9-1-1 yourself. There are countless instances in which a so-called “bystander effect” have kept people from intervening or summoning help for others who desperately needed it because they either assume someone else will or don’t deem it necessary because no one else is taking action. The first highly publicized case was that of Kitty Genovese, who was brutally murdered in an alleyway in Kew Gardens, Queens in 1964. While there is some controversy surrounding what the bystanders saw and heard, it does seem clear that very few, if any, of them called police to report her initial attack (her murderer was scared off and returned 10 minutes later to attack her again).

A more recent example from 2010 also occurred in New York City, when a Good Samaritan intervened in an attack and was stabbed himself. Surveillance footage shows more than 20 bystanders walking past him, as he lay bleeding, before someone calls 9-1-1 more than an hour after the assault. He ultimately died.

9-1-1 centers and public safety agencies nationwide are inundated on a daily basis with emergencies, to say nothing of the misuse of 9-1-1 (read all about the woman who called 3 times because a McDonald’s left her chicken nuggets out of the order). That being said, if there is any doubt as to whether someone is in distress and requires help, or even something looks suspicious – especially in the post-9/11 world – every public safety agency would prefer a false alarm or a duplicate call than no call at all.

9-1-1 Tips

Following these simple guidelines will help the 9-1-1 center send emergency assistance quickly:

  • Call from a landline whenever possible
  • Have an address or precise location to provide the telecommunicator
  • Listen carefully to the telecommunicator’s questions and provide information as it is requested
  • Attempt to speak as clearly and as calmly as possible
  • Follow the instructions that the telecommunicator provides to you, unless you feel they will place you in danger
  • Call 9-1-1 directly…only post to social media as a last resort
  • If in doubt as to whether someone is in distress or something is suspicious, call 9-1-1
  • Make sure your children know your home address and teach them how and when to use 9-1-1
  • Create a safety profile in a system such as Smart911.com to provide relevant information about you and your family to emergency responders
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