Response to NY Times Article “What Happens When a 9-1-1 Emergency Call Goes Silent”


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There are a number of reasons a call to 9-1-1 may be silent. The majority are accidental and just an unneeded burden on the limited resources of a 9-1-1 center – the most common being a pocket-dial from a cell phone – but those that are for true emergencies present considerable challenges for public safety.

In a moving New York Times article published on February 13th, reporter Michael Brick describes the frightening reality of silent 9-1-1 calls that are in fact emergency calls. This nightmare scenario for any 9-1-1 operator, as alluded to in the article, can literally haunt them forever. There are many situations that cause a sense of helplessness for a first responder – there are many calls I remember responding to that led to those feelings – but none must be worse than sitting on the other end of a telephone line without enough information to even dispatch emergency responders to an incident before it’s too late.

Brick describes two specific silent calls, one of which was a multiple homicide committed in Grapevine, Texas where a man shot and killed his estranged family of 6 as they opened Christmas presents. The silent call in this instance seems to have come from the shooter before turning the gun on himself. Here, the crime had already been committed and the call was placed from a landline, so while the call taker did not have exact knowledge of the circumstances, she was at least provided with an exact address to which to dispatch units. Given the lack of available information, she appropriately dispatched law enforcement and fire / EMS and instructed the medical responders to await the arrival of police. While definitely a tragic and unnecessary loss of life, this was a call that the 9-1-1 center was able to handle.

Let’s consider a situation a year earlier in an Atlanta suburb where a young girl hid in a closet during a home invasion, but managed to call 9-1-1 from a cell phone. This is truly a nightmare scenario for a 9-1-1 telecommunicator. The caller is unable to communicate her address for fear that an intruder will hear her. Given today’s technology, the call taker would be provided with an approximate location of the caller – perhaps within a football field of the home. If this call were placed in a rural area, then that might be sufficient to determine the actual location of the incident. However, in a gated apartment complex or other densely-populated location, it would take considerable time for police and EMS to locate the residence, if even able to.

An even more common occurrence is where a caller is unable to verbally communicate because of a physical disability or an acute medical condition. This is the most common use case we have seen since the launch of the Smart911 solution nearly two years ago. For callers who are unable to speak because of a disability or due to the circumstances surrounding the incident, Smart911 provides critical life saving information on the caller, including their address or apartment number and medical conditions. In the past year, Smart911 has helped saved the lives of callers suffering heart attacks, acute asthma attacks, allergic reactions, and even of those who are just unable to effectively communicate because of the stress they are under at the time of the call. The combination of an address and the approximate location provided by a Smart911 profile holder’s wireless provider is frequently sufficient to generate an emergency response. An example of a Smart911 save is mentioned in a recent article in The Jessamine (KY) Journal.

The time to prepare for calling 9-1-1 is before the need arises, not as you are frantically dialing those three digits. I have mentioned the following tips for being best prepared in previous posts, but I don’t think they can be overemphasized. They are:

  • Call from a landline whenever possible
  • Have an address or precise location to provide the telecommunicator
  • Listen carefully to the operator’s questions and provide information as it is requested
  • Attempt to speak as clearly and as calmly as possible
  • Follow the instructions provided to you, unless you feel they will place you in danger
  • 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
  • To reduce the number of pocket-dialed 9-1-1 calls from cell phones, “Lock It Before You Pocket” (to steal the tagline of a current Toronto Police Service public awareness campaign)
  • Create a safety profile in a system such as Smart911 to provide relevant information about you and your family to emergency responders in the event you are unable to
  • To find out whether your area is served by Smart911 and for more information, visit www.Smart911.com.

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