20 Secrets of 911 Dispatchers

iStock.com/HHLtDave5
iStock.com/HHLtDave5

Every year, the U.S. 911 system receives about 240 million 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 911, but if you do, here are a few things you should know about the person answering your call.

1. Most of the calls 911 dispatchers deal with aren’t emergencies.

On busy days, 911 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, Canada. “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 911 call. The fact you don’t know where you parked your car at the mall is not a 911 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. In 2015, a woman in Ohio was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor after calling 911 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. 911 dispatchers have a call hierarchy.

Emergency calls don’t necessarily 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 for 911.

All over the country, cell phone owners are unwittingly dialing 911 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 911 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 911 services, depletes PSAP morale, and increases the risk that legitimate 911 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 911 so we could hear their conversation and let the officers know their plan,” Nikki says. One accidental 911 call in Deltona, Florida, led officers to a meth house.

4. The 911 system might give you 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 911, 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 former dispatcher in California for 15 years who is also an author. This trick lets you bypass the 911 traffic jam, but should only be used if you know your exact location, because the 911 dispatchers have better tools for locating you.

6. Whatever you do, don’t hang up on a 911 dispatcher.

The worst thing you can do to a 911 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 to 911 dispatch 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. 911 dispatchers wish you’d call from a landline.

The prevalence of cell phones means the number of 911 calls made from landlines has decreased through the years: More than 80 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.” In 2018, Apple and Google also both added services that transmit location data from cellphones to 911.

9. You don’t have to say anything to the dispatcher.

In some dire emergency situations, a 911 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. 911 dispatchers 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. Dispatchers have learned that sports fans procrastinate in medical emergencies.

One guaranteed slow time for 911 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. 911 dispatchers are 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. Dispatchers 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 2012 study found 911 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. For dispatchers, kid calls are the worst.

Many experienced 911 operators develop pretty thick skins over the years. But emergencies involving children are an 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. Dispatchers have regulars.

If you’re lucky, you’ll never have to call 911, 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 $39,640, 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. Dispatchers know that 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. Dispatchers are 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.”

A version of this piece first ran in 2015.

12 Secrets of Roller Coaster Designers

People ride a spinning roller coaster in the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Park
People ride a spinning roller coaster in the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Park
hanusst/iStock via Getty Images

Back in the early 20th century, engineers attempting to push the limits of roller coaster thrills subjected riders to risky upside-down turns and bloody noses. A century later, coaster designers rely on computer software, physics, and psychology to push the limits of the roughly 5000 rides in operation worldwide. To get a sense of what their job entails, Mental Floss spoke with several roller coaster specialists about everything from testing rides with water-filled dummies to how something as simple as paint can influence a coaster experience. Here’s what we learned.

1. Getting strapped in might be the most exciting part of the roller coaster ride.

Known as a “thrill engineer,” UK-based Brendan Walker consults with coaster manufacturers and parks on the psychology of riding the rails. In his experience, riders getting secured into their seats are at the peak of their excitement—even more so than during the ride itself. “The moment the lap bar is being locked down and you have that feeling of things being inescapable, that you have to suffer the effects of the ride, is the highest moment of arousal,” Walker says. “The actual ride might only achieve 80 percent of that excitement.”

2. Designers test roller coasters with water-filled dummies.

Bill Kitchen, founder of U.S. Thrill Rides, says it can take anywhere from two to five years for a coaster to go from idea to execution. Part of that process is devoted to the logistics of securing patents and permits for local site construction—the rest is extensive safety testing. “We’re subject to ASTM [American Society for Testing Materials] standards,” Kitchen says. “It covers every aspect of coasters. The rides are tested with what we call water dummies, or sometimes sandbags.”

The inanimate patrons allow designers to figure out how a coaster will react to the constant use and rider weight of a highly trafficked ride. The water dummies—which look a bit like crash test dummies, but filled with water—can be emptied or filled to simulate different weight capacities. Designers also sometimes use the kind of crash-test dummies found in the auto industry to observe any potential issues prior to actual humans climbing aboard.

3. Every foot of roller coaster track costs a lot of money.

Thrill seekers go upside-down while riding on the Mind Eraser roller coaster in Agawam, Massachusetts
Thrill seekers go upside-down while riding on the Mind Eraser roller coaster in Agawam, Massachusetts
Kirkikis/iStock via Getty Images

There is absolutely nothing random about the length of a coaster’s track. In addition to designing a ride based on the topography of a park site, designers take into account exactly how much space they’ll need to terrorize you and not an inch more. When England’s Alton Towers park was preparing to build a ride named TH13TEEN for a 2010 opening, they asked Walker exactly how much of a drop was needed to scare someone in the dark. “It was a practical question,” Walker says. “For every extra foot of steelwork, it would have cost them £30,000 [roughly $40,000].”

4. Rollercoaster Tycoon brought a lot of people into the business.

The popular PC game, first released in 1999, allowed users to methodically construct their own amusement parks, including the rides. As a proving ground for aspiring engineers and designers, it worked pretty well. Jeff Pike, President of Skyline Attractions, says he’s seen several people grow passionate about the industry as a direct result of the game. “I remember when the game first got popular, I would go to trade shows and there would be kids looking to get into it using screen shots of rides they designed. The game definitely brought a lot of people into the fold.”

5. Paint makes a big difference in coaster speed.

A group of tin metal cans with colorful paint
scanrail/iStock via Getty Images

For all of their high-tech design—the software, fabrication, and precise measures of energy—a good coaster ride can often come down to whether it’s got too much paint on it. “The one thing that will slow down a steel coaster is a build-up of paint on the track rails,” Pike says. “It softens where the wheel is rolling and hitting the track, which increases the drag.” A good, worn-in track will have gray or silver streaks where the wheel has worn down the paint, making it move more quickly.

6. A roller coaster’s skyline is key.

Brian Morrow, former Corporate Vice President for Theme Park Experience at SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, says that the looming curvature of coasters spotted as guests drive toward and enter the park is very purposeful. “It’s like a movie trailer in that we want you to see some iconic coaster elements, but not the whole thing,” he says. “You approach it with anticipation.”

7. Some coasters arrive as giant model kits.

Whether a coaster’s theme or design comes first is largely left up to the end user—the amusement park. But for some rides, manufacturers are able to offer pre-fabricated constructions that designers can treat like the world’s biggest Erector Set. “Sometimes I work on rides that have already been built,” Walker says. “They’re produced by a company and presented almost like a kit with parts, like a model train set. There’s a curve here, a straight bit here, and you can pick your own layout depending on the lay of the land.”

8. Wooden roller coasters are weather-sensitive.

If you’ve ever been on a wooden coaster that seems a little shaky from one trip to the next, check the forecast: It might be because of the weather. Pike says that humidity and other factors can shrink the wood, affecting how bolts fit and leading to a slightly shakier experience. “The structure itself can flex back and forth,” he says. It’s still perfectly safe—it just takes more maintenance to make sure the wood and fasteners are in proper operating condition. A well-cared-for wooden coaster, Pike says, can usually outlast a steel model.

9. The time of day can affect the coaster experience.

“A coaster running in the morning could run slower when cooler,” Morrow says. “The wheels are not as warm, the bearings are warming up. That could be different by 2 p.m., with a slicked-up wheel chassis.” Coasters experiencing their first-ever test runs can also be slightly unpredictable, according to Pike. "Those first trial runs [during the testing phase] can be slow because everything is just so tight," he says. "A lot of coasters don't even make it around the track. It's not a failure. It's just super-slow."

10. Roller coaster designs can come from unusual places—like Jay Leno’s chin.

The twisting, undulating tracks of coasters can often be the result of necessity: Pike says that trees, underground piping, and available real estate all inform designers when it comes to placing a ride in a specific park. But when they have more freedom, coasters can sometimes take on the distinctive shape of whatever happens to be around the designers at the time of conception. “We had a giant piece of land in Holland that just had no constraints, and we were sitting around talking," Pike says. “And we started talking about Jay Leno’s chin.” The ride was a “loose” representation of the comedian's jaw, but “it is there.”

11. Roller coaster riders double as performers.

A woman taking a ride on a rollercoaster at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany
A woman taking a ride on a rollercoaster at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany
exithamster/iStock via Getty Images

For Walker, the best advertising for a coaster is having spectators watch riders de-board after an exhilarating experience. “It’s all about that emotion,” he says. “A spectator basically asks, ‘What’s making them so aroused? What’s giving them such pleasure?’ The line for the ride is the audience. Imagining yourself on the structure becomes a very powerful thing."

12. The future of coasters is vertical.

Biggest, fastest, longest—coasters are running out of superlatives. Because rides can only be designed with so many drips, rolls, or G forces, some companies are looking to the sky for their next big idea. Kitchen has been overseeing design of the Polercoaster for years: It’s a sprawling, skyscraper-esque ride that uses electromagnetic propulsion to carry riders upwards instead of across horizontal tracks. “We want to put it in places where land is very expensive, like the Vegas strip,” he says. “You can only do that if it takes up a lot less space.” The project is set to exceed the 456 feet of the current tallest ride, Kingda Ka at Six Flags in New Jersey. “It’ll be the world’s tallest—and hopefully the most fun.”

This list first ran in 2017.

Here's Why You Should Always Tip Your Delivery Driver With Cash

Khosrork/iStock via Getty Images
Khosrork/iStock via Getty Images

In our microchip- and app-happy society, we’ve all but abandoned paying for things in cold, hard cash. And while that’s almost definitely more efficient for you, it could be costing your delivery driver their tip, Lifehacker reports.

Some food delivery services guarantee a minimum payment for their drivers, which seems like a good thing on the surface. Basically, the company will pay the driver the agreed-upon base payment, even if it’s a slow shift and they don’t actually reach that amount in delivery charges. But it also means that everything they earn, including tip, is going toward that base payment. In other words, your tip is saving the company from having to pay more of the base payment.

The best way to ensure that your tip goes into your driver’s pocket is to give them a tip that they can literally put in their pocket—namely, cash. If you don’t have cash around or like to keep your finances digital for credit card rewards or tracking purposes, you should choose a delivery service that promises to pay their employees the full amount of whatever they earn, including tip.

Take a look at Lifehacker’s handy breakdown below to find out which delivery services you can trust with your tips, and read the policy details for each service here.

Delivery Services That Give Tips Directly to Drivers

PostMates
Grubhub/Seamless
Instacart
UberEats

Delivery Services That Keep Drivers’ Tips for Base Payment

DoorDash
Amazon Flex
Caviar

Keep in mind that this is only for companies whose whole business is based on being the go-between for you and your favorite restaurant. If you’re ordering directly from a restaurant, make sure to ask about its own delivery rules, or just tip in cash to be safe.

[h/t Lifehacker]

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