How 9-1-1 Works

The Human Side

­It may seem like a simple thing to determine when­ to call 9-1-1, but some PSAPs report between­ 15 and 20 percent of incoming calls as non-em­ergencies. So, what's a 9-1-1 emergency? A 9-1-1 emergency is a life-threatening situation in which every second counts. This includes serious medical issues, like a heart attack, uncontrolled asthma attack, seizure, child birth in progress, or anything involving large amounts of blood; any uncontained fire; and a life-threatening event like a knife fight outside a bar, an armed robbery in progress or a serious car accident (not a fender bender). Property theft is not considered an emergency, so if the armed robber has already left the scene, you can just look up the number for the police department instead of calling 9-1-1, since lives are no longer in danger. Neither a flat tire, a drunk person passed out in your bushes nor a serious desire to talk to someone about your recent divorce is considered a 9-1-1 emergency.

Even when there is a legitimate emergency and a caller is right to call 9-1-1, the call doesn't always go smoothly. Some mistakes that callers make include calling 9-1-1 and then leaving the phone or just hanging up, assuming the operator has all the necessary information when in fact he or she may have no information at all. Callers often hang up too soon during a call, causing the call-taker to have to call back to confirm details and make sure help has arrived. One big but often unavoidable problem occurs when the caller is hysterical and the call-taker can't understand what the caller is saying, in which case obtaining accurate information takes a lot longer than usual. And sometimes, callers don't pay enough attention to their environment to provide the location information the call-taker needs.

In June 2006 in Pennsylvania, six-year-old Brandon Bennett got it right. He watched his grandmother go into diabetic shock and immediately called 9-1-1, putting in motion the series of events that would save her life. With the help of the 9-1-1 call-taker, Brandon made a proper 9-1-1 call, which looks something like this:

  • Dial 9-1-1 and wait for operator to pick up. The operator will say, "911. What's your emergency?"
  • Stay on the line, speak clearly and follow the operator's instructions.
  • If possible, be aware of your surroundings so you can tell the operator exactly what's happening and where it's happening. The more information a call-taker has, the better he or she can help you by sending exactly the response team and equipment you need.
  • Don't hang up until the call-taker tells you to -- if you hang up too early, before the issue is resolved or before the call-taker knows that emergency personnel have arrived, she'll just have to call you back.

­Call-takers are trained to ask the right questions, calm hysterical callers and get emergency personnel to the scene as quickly as possible. In an emergency situation, none of these is necessarily an easy task. In May 2006 in Warrensburg, Missouri, a 9-1-1 call-taker picked up a call and heard nothing but a barely audible "Help me, help me." This went on for five minutes while the call-taker was trying to get some sort of information from a clearly debilitated caller so he could send help. The caller was using a cell phone, and this PSAP had not yet implemented Phase II, so the call-taker had nothing but a very vague general location and a call-back number. Five minutes into the call, all communication stopped. It sounded like the caller had lost consciousness.

The operator remained diligent. He stayed on the line for 20 minutes, listening intently to nothing but some background noise and, finally, a smoke alarm, until the woman regained consciousness for long enough to provide some partial address information. The call-taker dispatched emergency personnel to the apartment building the woman indicated, and they knocked on doors until they heard their own knocking through the radio link to the PSAP. They found the right apartment and rescued a 21-year-old, unconscious pregnant woman who likely would have died from smoke inhalation if she'd remained undiscovered for much longer. An unattended pot on the stove had filled the apartment with smoke and was ready to produce a fire at any minute.