When do 911 operators send help? I hear lots of irritating questioning in urgent calls

I’ve listened to a few 911 calls recently, and it seems like the operators are blowing a lot of time on thoroughly irritating, unimportant questions AFTER they have been told one or all of the following:

  • there are dead people
  • there are people threatening to kill
  • there are dying people


They are asking about the sex of the (in this case, decapitated baby on the kitchen counter) victim, where the caller hit his father when he shot him, etc. And they are asking these questions before they ever say “someone is on the way”

So are they just filling time and keeping the caller on the line, but they have actually dispatched police/ambulance much earlier, or are they really asking such completely pointless questions that are of no help or meaning in determining whether they should be dispatching? Cuz whether the decapitated baby on the counter was male or female really doesn’t matter, ya know? And exactly where the kid’s bullet hit his father’s body doesn’t really matter!

It’s one thing to question to determine if something terrible has actually occurred, rather than a prank or stupidity, but once the caller has told you that they have shot their parents, the baby is chopped up on the counter, your mom and grandma were killed by someone with a gun, etc… YOU IMMEDIATELY SEND EMERGENCY SERVICES. Right? RIGHT???

they can continue to talk after they send help. And in some cases they are trained to do that.

I listen to a lot of 911 calls in my work. I agree, it’s common and extremely frustrating. I believe, however, that usually they have dispatched help pretty quickly, but just have been trained to avoid saying it for some reason. Eventually, the caller will get pretty frantic and the operator will finally say something like “police and fire are on their way, I just need some more information to give them en route.”

There is always important information that has to be asked, and many dispatch centers work with a team where they are entering info into the data base and the partner is summoning the needed agency.
The information has to be obtained ASAP!
I have been responding to EMS calls for 35 years and we are in a rural location.
The dispatcher will many many times start us out and say my partner is still on the line getting info, and if there is need for Law Enforcement we may be ordered to stage a safe distance until the scene is declared safe.

also remember that now in most cases they know your address based on your phone number if you have a land line. But they probably will confirm it with you.

Cellphones are not tied to a location so they have to ask.

The one time I called 911 was for an ambulance. After giving her my address, the operator stated that she was sending one immediately and then began asking questions. I don’t remember what any of them were but I don’t recall any that seem out of place.

This was about 5 years ago so I don’t trust my memory for any details, but I recall that the entire experience was handled with utmost efficiency and professionalism on everyone’s part, including (surprisingly) mine.

In my area they send a fire truck even for medical issues since they might get their sooner. That was true for me, fire truck arrived a few minutes before the rescue squad. My problem was gallstones but it was similar to heart attack symptoms.

Many 911 systems these days are fairly modernized and make good use of technology. As soon as you call, the operator tries to verify the address and determine what type of emergency it is. While talking to you, the operator is also typing on the computer, generating the alarms that will send the appropriate units to respond. Once the nature of the emergency has been established, the computer will often put up a list of questions to ask. Some of them may be a bit stupid to ask in the given situation, but the point of this is to have a known list of common questions to ask to help make sure that the first responders have a better idea of what they are getting themselves into. It also helps to prevent important details from getting lost just because no one thought to ask about them in the heat of the moment.

So yeah, by the time they get to the stupid questions, help is already on its way. It takes some time for the responders to get to the scene, and it’s a good idea to get as much information as they can about the situation during that time. This also gives the caller something to focus on which may help reduce panic levels and panicked behavior that might cause more harm than good.

On many systems, as the 911 operator receives more information, he or she can type it into the computer and it will show up in the computers in the ambulances, police cars, fire trucks, etc. of those responding.

But there’s not really a lot of rush on that one, is there?

Depends on if it’s totally decapitated or only *mostly *decapitated.

We’re going to need to charter a bus.

“911, can you hold please.”

While the ambulance can get there only as fast as it can, knowing what kind of wounds to expect is important; it tells the ambulance crew what kind of prep to do on the way. Sex of a dead baby? Not really, but it goes into the stats.

Might be a bit of a rush if the decapitator is still hanging about.

As for the questions, some might be just to keep the person talking. I think you’d want to get a little info on this before coming in. And sometimes you want a person to keep talking so you can get an idea of what kind of mental state the caller is in.

I recall calling 911 on three occasions. I don’t recall any seemingly difficult, pointless questions.

The relevant emergency service is dispatched as soon as the operator knows which one(s) to send. The extra questions are there for a few reasons.

The primary reason for those questions is so the emergency service en-route has an idea of what they are going in to.

Secondly, the callers of the emergency services are not used to seeing what they are calling about and need to be kept calm until someone else can take over from them (in the case of a medical emergency, the caller is often the primary care until the emergency services arrive). The operators (in the UK at least, probably in most other places too) are trained to help relieve the emotional stress the caller is in.

Thirdly, by asking questions, the operator can find out if any other emergency service is required or prevent other incidents. For example, if a call comes in because someone has accidentally stabbed themselves while cooking, they will make sure the gas is turned off so there is no chance of a fire.


Where are you hearing these calls?

In addition to what others have explained, in general (at my City police department), in an emergency, the call is sent to the dispatcher immediately and then the call taker continues to get information. Reasons to continue asking questions, which may not seem sensible to those not in the profession can include:

  • Callers are in crisis and may not provide all the information needed at first,
  • Additional questions allow time for callers to catch their breath and become calmer,
  • More details helpful to first responders come out as time goes on,
  • Incorrect details can be corrected when the caller has a chance to repeat them,
  • More time allows the calltaker to hear helpful information in the background
    …and so on.

I would also imagine many callers hang up or put the phone down if they’re told right away that help is on the way.

Hope that helps!

I have spent some time in an ambulance emergency exchange (the three services are separate here). Many of the callers are initially pretty panicked and incoherent, and often they get abusive when the operator asks quite sensible questions. Ambulances are a finite and expensive resource and at busy times the operator has to decide on priorities. The safety of the crews is also a factor so if there is a machete wielding maniac about, they will wait for the police, even if some poor soul is bleeding to death.

Location is often a problem since everyone started using mobile phones. It is perhaps surprising how often people don’t know exactly where they are, or they are so taken up with the emergency in front of them that they can’t think. It’s the job of the operator to calm them down, give them first aid advice and get the paramedics there without delay.

The sad thing is that they get a good many unwarranted or hoax calls. One I actually witnessed was a teenager with a splinter in her finger who had woken up (at 11am) and found that her finger was swollen - she wanted an ambulance to take her to hospital. The staff patiently told her how to deal with it and to make her own way.

Fourthly it might be possible to connect incidents given additional details.

Fifthly, it might be possible to establish that it’s a prank call. Though I don’t know what effect that would have on the response…clearly they can’t ignore a 911 just because of a suspicion that it’s a hoax.

“Are you sure he’s dead?”



I called 911 on one occasion. There was no pointless questions at all. And the fire department was there VERY fast.