911 What is the address of your emergency?
“Hi! So this really isn’t an emergency, but have you a got a minute? OK good. So, the other day I was driving down Main Street, and this car passed me on the double line and it really made me mad. I didn’t call then, but I see the car now and I think you should speak to them.”
“Yes hello, my child is 7 years old, and I told him to go to bed, he won’t listen, so I told him he better go to bed or I’m calling the cops! Well he still isn’t in bed, so now I had to call you so I wouldn’t go back on my word. Can you send someone over?!”
“What time is it?”
“Oh thank god you answered! A helicopter just flew over my house! It’s louder than normal, so I think it’s lower than it should be, it was headed north. Who is it? What are they doing? “
“I’ve looked everywhere, and I can’t seem to find the number to the local library!”
Yes, these are real calls that I have taken as a 911 Dispatcher and the list could go on, and on and on. Sure, the majority of calls we receive through the 911 system are real, true emergencies, however, there is a high percentage of calls received by 911 agencies across the country on a daily basis that are non-emergent.
911 is an established number to report emergencies. It was designed as a fast track to get help en route in the quickest way possible. Due to the efficiency of the system, people now use 911 for EVERYTHING. People who call know that someone will answer the phone quickly, get the pertinent information, and send help right away. However, while a dispatcher is dealing with the “non-emergent” call, that may be delaying the response of a real emergency. It may only be a few seconds, but in public safety, a few seconds could change everything.
Most dispatch centers have a minimum of two people on duty and in some smaller towns there is only one. Imagine a sole dispatcher working, they are monitoring the frequencies, talking to units on the road via radio, and a 911 call comes in. The dispatcher answers the call in 1 ring, and on the other end is someone going on a rant about how their neighbor’s dog just went to the bathroom in their yard and they are sick and tired of this ongoing issue, while the dispatcher can’t get a word In edgewise… another 911 call comes in… 1 ring… “sir please hold I have an emergent call coming…..” 2 rings, “SIR please hold!” 3 Rings… “911 Where is your emergency?” “PLEASE help!!! My grandmother is on the floor, she fell, and I don’t think she is breathing!!! What can I do to help!!! PLEASE help me!!! I’m scared and alone!!!” says the 11 year old. The dispatcher now needs to send police, fire, and EMS, and see if the 11yr old is able to initiate CPR, while also trying to console the child to what they are witnessing. These are the seconds that count.
This isn’t meant to belittle incidents that need to be reported and isn’t meant to deter the calls to the local public safety agency. It’s simply to let everyone know to “think” before calling 911. All public safety agencies have a non-emergent or business phone line. Yes, it takes time to look up the number and dial, but if it saves a few seconds for someone else who is truly having an emergency, then it’s worth the small inconvenience.
Cleary put, 911 is for emergencies only. Immediate life or death incidents, injuries, and/or if a fire department or police response is needed, please call 911.
If you need advice, reporting a past incident, or calling for general information, please lookup and dial the non-emergent line. If you use the 911 system for these purposes, you could just be delaying the care and response for someone who REALLY needs it.
If you are unsure if what you have is an emergency and you absolutely need to get through to us quickly, PLEASE, call 911.
When in doubt, always call.
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Jason Rushford has been an Emergency Dispatcher with Amherst Communications Center since 2006. He started his career in public safety in 1999 when he joined the Orange Fire Department as a call firefighter in which he currently still serves, and holds the rank of Lieutenant/EMT-B. During his off-time he is also a manager and regular contributor here at FIREGROUND360°.