Ask the 911 dispatcher

I finally got jealous enough of Badge’s Ask the cop thread to start one of my own from the other side of the radio. :smiley:

So, a little background. I’ve been doing this for about 2 1/2 years, dispatching for a rural county in mid-Missouri. We’re actually an EOC, an emergency operations center; we handle all 911 calls as well as all other emergency and non-emergency phone and radio traffic for all law enforcement, ambulance, and fire departments in the county. Larger towns have dedicated 911 centers and seperate dispatch centers for various departments. I enjoy my job quite a lot and they tell me I’m pretty good at it. So, anything anybody wants to know?

What is the most emotionally wrenching call you’ve had?

Do you have a lot of pranks? Roughly, what would be the %age?
In France it’s a big problem I heard.

Calls with little kids always get to me; one I remember in particular involved a little girl, about 9 I think, who woke up in the middle of the night and found that no one was home. She called 911 to see if we knew any open stores in the area that her mom might have gone to. She seemed to be a very sweet and intelligent little girl who was trying her best to stay calm even though I could tell she was really scared and upset, and man, I really wanted to drive out there and slap her mother when she finally showed back up (she had run out of fuel for her bong).

I’ve worked hundreds of motor vehicle accidents and generally they don’t affect me very much, but we had one a few weeks ago that for some reason really upset me. It was nothing terribly dramatic; a single vehicle in which the driver fell asleep and ran off the road, killing him. For some reason I found myself wondering who he was, if he had kids, what he was thinking before he nodded off, if he even realized what was happening (he was conscious for a while but not, I’m told, making much sense). That one’s stayed with me for a while.

We don’t have much of a problem with prank calls; I can’t really recall ever getting one. What’s more fun is when someone accidentally hits the emergency button on their cell phone; we’ve eavesdropped on some interesting conversations. We’re unable to track addresses on cell phones.

Marlitharn –

Do you ever patch in a second operator to help calm someone down or to see if you’re interpreting the situation correctly? I’m also curious about loads on the phone system and the operators: are you super-busy? What do you know about loading for other areas?

Best regards,


From watching far too much “Rescue 911,” have you ever had to talk someone through delivering a baby over the phone? How did that work out?

Do you ever get any really stupid calls? I have a couple books, titled “What’s the Number for 911?” which list several actual examples of stupid calls which are clearly not emergencies.

What are your tactics for dealing with hysterical callers? Are you usually able to get them calmed down enough to describe their situation?

What’s the most unusual call you have ever taken? Not necessarily the worst situation, just unusual.

Do you have any problems with “unplugging” at the end of the day? That is, do you continue to think about the things you had to deal with that day after you’ve gone home, or are you able to shut it all out of your mind until the next day?

The 9 y.o.'s mother told you that she left her kid alone because she ran out of fuel for her bong?

Did you call Child Services (or whatever it’s called in your area)?

Please tell us about a couple of the more memorable cell phone conversations you’ve overheard.


Generally, when one of our 911 lines rings (we have 4), at least 2 operators will pick it up. One of us can then talk to the caller and gather information; the 2nd can get units in route once he or she knows the address and basic nature of the call. We have 20 phone lines total; the only time I’ve ever seen all the phones ringing at once was the night of 9/11, when people were freaking out because there were fighter jets from Whiteman Air Force base flying overhead.

We don’t usually have any problems keeping up with the phones; it’s when we get something like an accident or a structure fire, and we have ambulance and firefighters and cops enrt all asking for more information and instructing us to call wreckers or the electric company or whatnot, that we start feeling slammed. 2 operators and 25 various and sundry emergency units on the radio; that gets a bit stressful.

Yep. Her water had just broken when her sister called, and 3 minutes later I heard, “It’s a girl!” I didn’t have time to tell her much more than to grab a clean towel and get ready to catch. Mom and baby were both fine; it was pretty cool.

Oh, yes. Tons. I’d estimate only about 30% of our 911 calls are actual emergencies. People call 911 if their power goes out.

There’s a technique called “repetitive persistence”, which basically means you ask a hysterical caller the same question over and over in the same firm tone of voice until you get an answer. You have to kind of project your personality over the phone and take control of the call; if you freak, the caller is going to freak. Once they realize help is on the way most of them relax a little bit; they’ll also usually calm down if we give them some task to do (“I’m going to help you help her; tell me X.”) People panic when they feel helpless. Of course, some callers are just going to be hysterical no matter what you do. And there’s no predicting what’s going to cause people to freak out; I had a woman call, calm as can be, to report that she found her husband dead in his chair; another time I answered the phone to a woman screaming so hysterically that I thought sure someone had just broken in and raped and beaten her repeatedly. Nope. Someone stole her car stereo.

Most unusual call? Hee.
“Sheriff’s department.”
“Yes, this is Jehovah Jiwhad, I’m just calling to tell you I’m back.”
“You may know me better as Bright Morning Star, Keeper and Redeemer of the wine press, and I’m back.”
“Oo-kay, back from where?”
“From hell.”
“And where are you now?”
“That’s none of your business. Just tell them I’m back.” Click.

That one came in on a non-emergency line so we didn’t have an address on it.

Unplugging? Sometimes. Fortunately I have a very understanding husband who patiently listens to me vent, although due to confidentiality issues I have to vent vaguely. If I feel the need to vent specifically, my best friend works at the same agency, and we frequently call each other up to talk out calls that won’t go away.

She didn’t so much tell as admitted, when the officer on scene questioned her about the bong and the pipes on the coffee table. DFS was notified, and the child was removed for the night. I don’t know how it all turned out in the long term.

Well, there was the drunken frat boy a cappella concert. That one was hilarious; those boys couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. Another time we listened to an argument between a boyfriend/girlfriend, carried on in extreme southern accents, and involving her accusing him of f**king the dog. They never got physical, or even violently loud, so we didn’t feel too guilty listening and giggling.

Interesting topic.

What kind of background do you need for this job? What kind of training do you receive before you start answering calls?

What’s the busiest time of day for calls? How does the day’s call volume overall break down (nothing before lunch, lots between 5 and 7 pm, etc.)?

A few months back, while near the border of two neighboring towns, I came across an SUV which had lost control, drove up an enbankment, and then flipped over a few times. (That part wasn’t necessarily surprising; he had come up behind me just a minute or two earlier, driving what seemed to be 90 miles an hour. I know I was going at least 75-80. He didn’t even wait for me to change lanes so he could pass; he just came thiiiiiis close to my rear bumber and swung to my right. At the time I thought, “These guys never learn.”) The driver, thrown from the vehicle, was trying to stand. Bleeding from the head and elsewhere, he was not in the best shape to do anything, much less stand. I pulled over, grabbed my cell phone and called 911. When I told the operator where the accident was, she told me that I needed to talk to the other town’s 911 service. And then she transferred me.

Now, I know that cell phones don’t always hit the right 911 center (for where the cell phone’s location is, I mean), but is it usual–when the two towns are right next to each other–for there to be a transfer? It just seemed like it was a waste of time, especially when I had to give the location and problem one more time.

Since you’re in Missouri, Marlitharn, you might know the two towns: Liberty and Pleasant Valley. Small as they are, it’s not as if the emergency crew from the smaller town, Pleasant Valley, had far to travel.

But I don’t know: I’m probably missing something. (And this isn’t a complaint; I’m just curious.)

For my agency, all we need is a high school diploma and a clean record. When I was trained, I had an AAPCO course (and if I could find my old books I might remember what that stands for), a basic telecommunications course that covered liability issues and call-taking procedures. We also get certified in MULES, Missouri Law Enforcement System, with which we run plates and licenses, enter warrants and stolen items, access, probation and parole records, send messages to other agencies; throw a few more gigabytes in it and it would probably answer phones for us. Most of us took an EMD (Emergency Medical Dispatching) course last year, too; I got a lot out of that class regarding medical situations and first-aid. We got certified in CPR, too.

Busiest time of day? Pretty unpredictable. Day shift gets a lot of telephone traffic, and a lot of it is administrative crap. (“I demand you let me speak to Sheriff Bob right now! He’s my good friend and he’ll take care of this!” “His name’s not Bob, sir.” Yes, that’s happened.) Second shift comes in at 3:30 PM; they have the most officers on duty and they deal with a lot of traffic stops and accidents, mainly because that’s when there’s a lot of people on the roads, heading home from work or running errands. I work graveyard; we’re generally a lot slower than the other shifts, except on weekends and Thursday nights. I have no idea why Thursday is often our busiest night of the week, but it is.

We get a lot of cell calls that belong in neighboring counties, too, and with rare exceptions I transfer them where they need to go. An exception would be if the caller is suicidal, or is so sick he’s about to pass out, or is in the middle of a violent domestic; in that case I would keep him on the line and have another operator call the appropriate agency to relay the information.

Transferring may seem like a waste of time, but it’s actually more efficient. We like to gather as much information as possible first-hand, so we can give accurate information to responding units. Had your first operator taken your information and then passed it on to the 2nd operator, I can pretty much guarantee the 2nd operator would have been calling you back with more questions, and possibly first-aid instructions for the injured man. It’s like that old game, Telephone, where the first person in line whispers something to the next person, who passes it on, and so on until the message received by the last person is drastically different from the original. The more people a call goes through, the better the chance some of the information might be distorted. Also, there may be issues that the first operator wouldn’t be aware of, but the 2nd would, such as road closings, or maybe they’re familiar with that subject (we call them Frequent Fliers).

Dispatching one agency to another agency’s calls is a No-no. Sure, the crew from Pleasant Valley probably didn’t have far to travel. But the crew from Liberty was probably closer, and more importantly, they know their own area. To use the road closing example again, Liberty would know what roads were open and the most efficient way to get there; Pleasant Valley might not. We have mutual aid agreements with surrounding counties and if they ask for help we’ll certainly send it, but we don’t send units outside their jurisdiction on our own. Not only is it inefficient time-wise, it ticks off the jurisdiction that’s being invaded as well as the agency that finds itself being sent to someone else’s calls, the feeling being “We have enough crap of our own to deal with, why are we dealing with theirs?”

Keep’em coming, guys, this is fun!

Thanks for the answer, Marlitharn! At the time I was just worried about the guy and, as you can imagine, thought that the time I was put on hold (during the transfer) seemed to last forever. I think I yelled something like, “I’m only a half minute from Pleasant Valley!” (But that was to the silence while being transferred. I didn’t yell at either operator–nor did I plan to do so.)

You do an amazing job!

From this side of the radio, I just wanted to say thank you for the job you do, Marlitharn. I know how difficult it can be (I dispatched for a year or so before being hired full-time for the street) and I appreciate what you do.

How many call-takers/dispatchers do you have on an average shift? Our 911 center usually has four at a time and they are often overwhelmed.

What is the worst abuse of 911 that you’ve had? Mine was a woman who called 911, demanding to speak to the Chief of Police because she had discovered that the Sunday School teacher at the Lutheran Church told the kids about evolution.

My cousin is a 911 dispatcher and occasionally she gets a call from someone hoping to make a love connection with a certain hunky fireman or paramedic that came to their aid recently. Of course, my cousin isn’t allowed to give out any information, not even what station they work out of and certainly not whether she knows if he is married or single. Do you ever get calls like this? Do any ever get particularly persistant?

Also, how do you deal with habitual callers who might be mentally ill and just want someone to talk to? What about the ones who get argumentive or abusive when you try to cut their calls short? Way before the days of 911, my mom occasionally used to like to call the police just to chat so I know this kind of thing happens.

Question:311…Isn’t it a great idea? Does it exist in your neck of the woods? Has your Civil Service Union started lobbying for it in your state/locality?

What’s in a name:
I notice you refer to yourself as a The 911 Dispatcher. Not to sound macabre, but wouldn’t the person who routed the jets into the WTC also be referred to the 911 dispatcher. Has anyone you worked with ever tossed around the idea of changing the title of your job?

Call tracing.
Around these parts all 911 calls are tracked via caller ID. The policy is, if someone dials 911 and doesn’t even say a word, police get dispatched to the point of the call’s origin. (In fact, a little known “trick” the cops do when they want overtime is to dial 911 from a payphone on their beat, wait for the operator to hang up & then get dispatched there).

Does your locality trace all calls?
Do you have the same ‘mandatory response’ policy?
What’s the latest news on the ability to trace the location of calls made from cell phones?

Why, thank you, Badge.. I know how difficult your job is, too, though I’ve never worked on your end. After hearing some of our officers’s stories, I don’t think I ever want to. Some of the people you arrest are really smelly. :slight_smile:

We have anywhere between 2 and 4 dispatchers on duty, and we sometimes get overwhelmed, as well. Not so much with answering phones, but keeping up with radio traffic; we dispatch for the sheriff’s department, five municipal police departments (although two of them only have part-time officers, and two others will have at the most two officers on duty), the county ambulance service which responds from two locations, and eight fire departments, one of which is professional and the other seven volunteer. They don’t say anything unless we send them somewhere (except for the cops), but once we dispatch a call to them, it’s on.

Worst abuse of 911? I know I’ve posted this somewhere before, but I’m gonna repeat it, because it’s hilariously dumb. A guy called 911 on his cell phone to report two Middle Eastern males gassing up their car at a local truck stop. He said they were suspicious and he wanted an officer to check them out. I asked him why they were suspicious… “Well, they’ve got surfboards on top of the car!” “Okay, sir, why is that suspicious?” He gave a great exasperated sigh and said, “Arabs don’t surf!”

Another guy kept calling demanding that we do something about the flashing light on top of the cell phone tower because, “It’s just going to guide the terrorists right to us!”

I must say I’ve never had to deal with that. If I did get a call like that, I wouldn’t be allowed to give out any information, either.

Depends on the circumstances. We had one little old lady who called all the time complaining about people in her house jabbing her with poison needles and growing “the pot” in her basement and various other things. Oh, and the sheriff was trying to steal her land. At one time the officers got the Department of Aging involved, but they determined she wasn’t a threat to herself or others, so they let her stay where she was. Eventually she got to where she was calling the sheriff at home, and calling the local FBI office. Finally her son came up from another state, saw how bad she’d gotten, and took her home with him. We used to have another old lady who was just as sweet as she could be, though she was crazy as a bedbug; if we weren’t busy, we’d chat with her.

If someone wants to get argumentative or abusive, I calmly state one more time that I will have an officer get in touch with them, and to have a nice day. Then I hang up.

I’ve never heard of 311 but I’m loving the idea. I may have to forward that article to our director. Although now I think of it, he’s probaly already aware of it; he stays pretty informed in his field.

Actually, in our agency, our title is emergency telecommunications operator. But when I say that to people I get a blank look, whereas if I identify myself as a 911 operator they immediately know what I’m talking about. When talking amongst ourselves, we just call each other dispatchers or operators.

We trace all calls placed to 911 from a landline. We can’t trace calls from cell phones, and for some reason I’ve never been able to figure out, we don’t have Caller ID on our non-emergency lines. If we get a 911 hang up, procedure is to call it back. If we get no answer, or if we get an answer and we don’t like it, we send an officer. Usually we’ll send one regardless of the answer we get, just to be safe, but if it’s obvious that it was little Timmy playing on the phone, and Mom is horribly embarassed, and the cops are all busy on other things, we won’t.

If I found out a cop was making fake calls, I’d whack him with a stick. Then I’d make sure he got all the barking dog calls for a month.

Here’s an article that gives a good overview of where we’re at. It’s going to be a long time before we’re able to track cell phones, and it’s going to require the cooperation of a bunch of different agencies and businesses, and our agency, for one, is going to have to do major upgrades.