20 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of 9-1-1 Dispatchers
Every day, the U.S. 9-1-1 system receives more than 500,000 calls, and emergency dispatchers are the very first responders. They translate a caller’s situation into actionable instructions so police, fire, or medical teams can respond as quickly as possible. It’s an incredibly demanding job, with some shifts lasting up to 16 hours. That’s a lot of time spent listening to terrified callers in their most desperate moments, and it takes a certain kind of person to survive the stress. Hopefully you never have to dial 9-1-1, but if you do, here are a few things you should know about the person answering your call:
1. MOST CALLS AREN’T EMERGENCIES.
On busy days, 9-1-1 dispatchers may get somewhere between 300 and 500 calls, and they have to answer every single one of them. However, many of them aren’t true emergencies. “Ninety-five percent are nothing calls,” says Amanda, a dispatcher of eight years in British Columbia. “They’re not people who need help. They’re people who have low coping skills. The fact you don’t know how to change the batteries in your fire alarm is not a 9-1-1 call. The fact you don’t know where you parked your car at the mall is not a 9-1-1 call. But you’ll have days where it seems that’s all you get.”
The irrelevant calls can be about anything from barking dogs to parking disputes, and in some states there are penalties for abusing the system. Earlier this year a woman in Ohio was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor after calling 9-1-1 to report bad Chinese food. A man in Illinois was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for using the emergency line to request an ambulance ride to a doctor’s appointment.
“The level of distress somebody is displaying is in no way correlated to how serious their problem is,” Amanda says. “The people who are screaming the most generally have overflowing toilets. But the calmest guy will call up and say, ‘I don’t really wanna bother anybody, but my wife isn’t breathing.’”
2. THERE’S A CALL HIERARCHY.
Emergency calls don’t just get responded to in the order in which they’re received. “Calls get triaged based on the level of immediate public danger,” Amanda says. So calls involving things like weapons, kids, or domestic violence get prioritized. If you just woke up and realized your car or house was broken into, unless the invader is still there, the police are told to respond when they have a free moment.
Bill Blume, a dispatcher in Virginia since 2001, says call severity also dictates whether emergency vehicles respond with or without sirens. Life-threatening events get lights and sirens. For events that are less severe but happening now, officers go quickly but without lights or sirens. And for low-priority calls, an officer might take their time. “A low code call tells officers, ‘if you need to go get some coffee or grab lunch, it’s a good time to do it on the way to this call. No matter what time officers arrive, it won’t affect the outcome,” Blume says.
3. BUTT-DIALS ARE A BIG PROBLEM.
All over the country, cell phone owners are unwittingly dialing 9-1-1 and clogging up the lines with the muffled sounds of their pants or purse pockets. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that roughly half of all 9-1-1 calls made by cell phones in New York City are accidental, which translates into about 84 million calls per year. “This is a huge waste of resources, raises the cost of providing 9-1-1 services, depletes PSAP morale, and increases the risk that legitimate 9-1-1 calls—and first responders—will be delayed,” FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly declared in a memo.
These accidental calls may be a waste of resources, but that doesn’t mean they’re not entertaining. “We’ve had people call with the phone under their pillow while they’re having sex, or people singing while they’re driving down the road,” says Nikki, a dispatcher for nine years in Michigan.
And not all butt-dials are useless. “We once had a police chase going on and the people being pursued accidentally dialed into 9-1-1 so we could hear their conversation and let the officers know their plan,” Nikki says. One accidental 9-1-1 call in Deltona, Florida, led officers to a meth house.
4. YOU CAN GET A BUSY SIGNAL …
Sometimes there are more calls than dispatchers can handle, especially during emergencies that a lot of people witness, like a fire or car crash. “When you have a very public incident going on, sometimes you’ll get busy signals because there are instantly 1000 calls,” says Amanda. “The problem is that within those busy signals are some set of people calling for things that are not the public incident.”
5. … BUT THERE’S A WAY AROUND IT.
If you can’t get through to 9-1-1, you can try calling your local police or fire department directly through their seven-digit phone number, which you can find online. “You should have that number programmed into your phone,” says Rachael Herron, a dispatcher in California for 15 years who is also an author. This trick lets you bypass the 9-1-1 traffic jam, but should only be used if you know your exact location, because the 9-1-1 dispatchers have better tools for locating you.
6. WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T HANG UP.
The worst thing you can do to a 9-1-1 dispatcher is end the call before they answer. Every time someone calls and hangs up, dispatchers are required to call that number back. Even if you called by mistake, the best thing to do is stay on the line and explain, rather than hanging up and initiating a game of phone tag.
“I understand how frustrating and how long it can seem when you’re sitting there waiting and it feels like nothing’s happening quickly,” says Blume, “but at same time people just don’t appreciate how much a hang-up can slow the process down.”
7. A LOT OF CALLERS DON’T KNOW THEIR OWN LOCATION.
The most important piece of information for an emergency operator to acquire is a caller’s exact location. After all, they can’t send help if they don’t know where you are. But because not all emergencies happen at home or near a clearly-labeled street sign, many callers simply don’t know where they are when disaster strikes. “Maybe you’re stuck in a store and you didn’t pay attention to the address,” explains Amanda. “Or on the highway people are very fuzzy about where they are. In hotels people don’t know their room number.”
This requires some investigative work on behalf of the dispatcher, and everything becomes a clue. “Any descriptors are really useful, like if it’s really close to a landmark or store,” says Amanda. If the caller spots a license plate, the dispatcher can run the number and cross-reference it with the owner’s home address. If all else fails, dispatchers can send police cars to where they think the caller is and guide the officers using the sounds of the sirens over the phone.
Experience has taught dispatchers to be extra-aware of their surroundings at all times. “I used to say ‘left’ or ‘right’ but now I say ‘north, south, east, west,’” says Nikki. “I pay attention all the time now to where I am and what’s going on around me.”
8. THEY WISH YOU’D CALL FROM A LANDLINE.
The prevalence of cell phones means the number of 9-1-1 calls made from landlines has decreased through the years: according to the FCC, 70 percent of emergency calls now come from wireless phones. But this poses a challenge for dispatchers, because unlike a landline, cell phones are not attached to a specific address.
“The absolute number one thing if there’s an emergency, please call from a landline,” says Amanda. “If you’re in an apartment building with 35 floors, it will give us an apartment number. Your cell phone will only give us an approximate.”
But this information varies by location and carrier. “We’ve discovered that Sprint and Verizon have the most accurate locations,” says Nikki. “We were once trying to locate a man with a gun, and he had Sprint, and the map showed him on one side of a pine tree and that’s exactly where he was.”
According to USA Today, more than 60 percent of cell phone calls to 9-1-1 in California last year didn’t transmit a location. The problem stems from the fact that the 9-1-1 system was built for landlines and doesn’t always work with a phone’s built-in GPS. Dispatchers have to request data on a cell phone’s coordinates from the cell phone network and use nearby towers to estimate a location. This can happen quickly or slowly, or not at all.
9. YOU DON’T HAVE TO SAY ANYTHING.
In some dire emergency situations, a 9-1-1 caller may be unable to speak. For example, if an intruder is in their home, or they’re choking or having a heart attack. Dispatchers are trained to ask yes-or-no questions a caller can answer with the push of a button. “We’ll tell them to press a button if they’re in the city,” explains Martha, a dispatcher in Georgia. “If they don’t press a button we’ll know they’re in a county. Or if there’s a domestic situation, we’ll ask, ‘Is he still in the room? Does he have a weapon? Has he been drinking?’”
10. THEY DON’T KNOW WHAT HAPPENS TO CALLERS.
One of the hardest things about being a dispatcher is the lack of closure that comes with the job. Once the first responders are on the scene, dispatchers have to hang up and move to the next call. They will probably never find out what happens to their callers. “It is the worst part,” says Jill, a 14-year veteran dispatcher in Florida. “You have this intense moment with this person, it could be the most horrible moment of their life and you’re the first one to help them, and you never find out what happens.”
11. SPORTS FANS PROCRASTINATE IN MEDICAL EMERGENCIES.
One guaranteed slow time for 9-1-1 dispatchers is during a major sporting event, particularly the Super Bowl. “You get no calls when the game is on,” says Amanda. “None. It’s bizarre.” But dispatchers don’t have to follow the game to know when it’s over. When the buzzer goes off, the phones start ringing. “As soon as the game is over, you’ll have 20 guys having a heart attack because they weren’t willing to call during the game,” says Herron. “It’s true every single year.”
12. THEY’RE VERY SUPERSTITIOUS.
One word you’ll never hear a dispatcher mumble is “quiet.” Acknowledging a shift has been particularly sedate is a quick way to get an onslaught of calls, Amanda says. Acceptable alternatives include “tranquil” and “serene.”
13. THEY DON’T CARE WHY IT HAPPENED.
Dispatchers want to know the what and where of your emergency, but never the why. “'Why' is the one question we never ask,” says Blume. “Everyone is dying to tell us why, and the thing is that has nothing to do with determining the level of safety for our officers.”
14. THEY’RE TRAUMATIZED.
One recent study found 9-1-1 dispatchers are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder due to the high volume of distressing calls they receive. "This is a population of people who are routinely exposed to events that should be considered traumatic," says Michelle Lilly, a psychology professor at Northern Illinois University.
“I heard a gentleman take his last breath after being stabbed,” Jill admits. “That one bothers me today and it happened seven years ago. I have a thick skin but not around my heart.”
Insomnia, paranoia, and grief can haunt dispatchers when they’re not manning the phone lines. Herron says she can’t drive around her town without remembering the bad things that happened at particular addresses. “I know the geography of grief,” she says. “I know which woman hanged herself in that window and which mother found her son dead in that bedroom.”
Some dispatchers survive by emotionally detaching, others by approaching their job from a mindset of positivity. “A lot of people I work with live with a lot of fear and assumptions that terrible things will happen in the world because that’s what they hear,” says Amanda. “But my frame that keeps me ok is I know that this person is having a terrible day whether I’m there or not, and anything I do might make things better. And most people never have to call us. The majority of people go through their days and nothing bad happens to them and that’s very powerful also. We have to remember the things we hear are rare.”
15. KID CALLS ARE THE WORST.
Most experienced 9-1-1 operators develop pretty thick skins over the years and can walk away from even the most disturbing calls unfazed. But emergencies involving children are the exception.
“Everyone hates a baby call,” says Herron. “If you get a call that a baby isn’t breathing, the whole room gets really, really quiet and all the dispatchers pull for the person giving CPR instructions. I’ve had a couple that have gone badly and those are hard to let go.”
16. THEY HAVE REGULARS.
If you’re lucky, you’ll never have to call 9-1-1, but some people call the number so often the dispatchers recognize them immediately and know them by name.
“We call them frequent flyers,” Blume says. “You kind of develop a relationship with them. You remember them and know how that conversation is gonna go. It may be someone prone to alcoholism or who has a history of mental illness and you know certain things that work on other calls just aren’t gonna work there.”
17. DISPATCH IS FULL OF CREATIVES.
A lot of dispatchers enter into the career through the side door, as writers or musicians looking for steady income while they pursue their art on the side. “You rarely see someone come into a job as a dispatcher where that is their career goal,” says Blume, who is an author of several books himself.
“I work with five or six people who have written and published books because that’s what they want to do but they can’t make any money doing it so they do this four days a week,” says Amanda, who took the job to supplement her magazine writing.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers make an average annual salary of $36,300, a pretty decent supplemental income. But finding the right kind of person for the job is difficult considering the high stress levels and long hours, and a lot of new dispatchers quit. “Our survival rate is one-third,” Blume estimates. “In my academy we had nine people in the beginning and by the time we were done, there were three of us left.”
18. YOUR DISPATCHER MIGHT BE KNITTING WHEN YOU CALL.
Dispatchers are multi-taskers who thrive on adrenaline, and that’s what makes them good at their job. They can talk a caller through CPR while simultaneously typing instructions for first responders at record speeds. But between calls and on slower days, they get bored like the rest of us, and resort to browsing social media or even knitting to occupy the time.
For some veteran dispatchers, the job has become so routine they can nearly do it with their eyes closed. Nikki admits that sometimes while she’s instructing a caller on how to administer CPR, she’s simultaneously browsing Pinterest. “I’m like holy crap I just saved somebody’s life without realizing what I was doing.”
19. TASKS KEEP PEOPLE CALM.
A dispatcher’s job is to get as much pertinent information as possible from a caller, and that’s hard to do when the caller is hysterical. But there are tricks that dispatchers use to calm people, even in the most terrifying situations. “I slow my language and bring my tone way down,” says Herron. “If they’re shouting, I don’t shout back because it’s human nature, if someone else talks quietly, you listen.”
One quick way to get a panicked caller to concentrate, Jill says, is to give them something to do. “If they don’t know where they’re at, I tell them to look for a piece of mail. If you give them a small task it seems to make them focus a little more and that can de-escalate their stress a little bit.”
The most important thing is to just keep talking, Blume says, because silence can make a caller feel alone, which breeds panic. Skilled dispatchers will explain exactly what they’re doing on their end of the line and why, even if it’s boring. “I’ll say ‘standby just a moment, I’m going to enter this,’ or ‘hold on I’m going to update the units, don’t hang up.’ A lot of times those little touches can completely change the tone of a conversation. It’s all about communicating.”
20. THEY’RE HUMAN LIE-DETECTORS.
From the second they answer your call, dispatchers are listening for signs the situation is not as you say. Callers lie to them all the time for various reasons. For example, someone might exaggerate the seriousness of their situation (perhaps by reporting that gunshots have been fired when they haven’t) to get a faster police response. In a domestic abuse situation, a victim might place the call but be unable to communicate, or the abuser could somehow end up with the phone and lie on their behalf, or hang up. The dispatcher’s job is to use strategic questions to gather any revealing information they can.
“Usually you can read into tone,” says Blume. “A red flag is if, when I call back, they say the call was a mistake, that’s a big difference than if they say it was an accident. If they say it was a mistake that gives me the impression they were trying to call on purpose and clearly there was a reason why they did it. You have to be suspicious.”
All images via iStock.