Normally I wouldn't post such a document to this intelligent community, but it never fails to surprise me how many people call in with stupid questions. Any chance to educate the people I help, or anyone else helps, is great. So here goes.

Who am I calling?

All calls to 9-1-1 are directed to a Primary Answering Point (PAP). In my city, it's the police department. All calls which the local phone company determine are coming from within the city jurisdiction come to us. We have one computer at each station (we call it the VESTA, but it's just the name for the software it runs) that displays all of our 911 lines, emergency lines, administrative lines, non-emergency lines, and then our direct dial lines, which are dedicated phone lines or radio links to the county sheriff, fire dispatch, and our tow service. When we receive a 911 call, we immediately see the number through Automatic Number Identifier (ANI) which is then automatically run through our Automatic Line Identifier (ALI) to get full account information. If the call is in our jurisdiction, we make up a call for service. If it is a fire/medical call, in the sheriff jurisdiction, or in the highway patrol jurisdiction, we can immediately transfer it accordingly.

What do you know about me?

As soon as you call, we know your number through ANI. This is regardless of whether or not you have Caller ID Blocking, or hang up before we pick up. This is automatically routed to our ALI system which then produces even more information. From that we get your telephone number, your street address (as it is listed on your phone bill), your name, what kind of line you are calling from (PBX lines, where you have to dial "9" before getting a dial tone, etc), whether you are calling from a business, residence, or payphone, and the billing number (often times, especially with PBX lines or businesses, a place will have multiple lines all put on one bill. It lists the master number for us), and then the appropriate Police, Fire and Ambulance agencies to handle the jurisdiction. Remember all lines are recorded, and all lines can be subpoenaed for court at any time.

When should I call, and when should I not call?

The simplest answer is, whenever you have an emergency. One thing I hear most often when I ask "What is your emergency?" is "I don't have an emergency." Yes we can transfer you over to our non-emergency lines, but that can take anywhere from 10-15 seconds, in which time any other person waiting to be answered could die. More specific, call to report a crime in progress, any medical emergency, any fire, any life threatening situation, or any other situation that requires IMMEDIATE assistance. Never call back to 9-1-1 to cancel a call, never call back on 9-1-1 to ask when police will arrive, never call back to do anything but state that a life threatening condition, or any other emergency condition exists that did not exist when you originally called or you did not state in your original call. Police departments ALWAYS have non-emergency numbers... they are always in the phone book. If your call is important enough to call the police for, it is important enough for you to look up a phone number.

What should I do when I call?

First and foremost, stay calm. Panic is your worst enemy in any situation. Next, don't tell stories. The officers that respond can hear what happened three years ago, but we need to know what is going on now, so we can dispatch officers now. Don't try and guess what we are going to ask. We know your address, and we are asking you questions in a way that will allow us to enter it in quickly so that we can get you help fast. Focus on what the operator is telling you, not on what is going on around you. We understand that you are in a stressful situation, but we need to know what is going on. Also understand that just because we have you on the phone doesn't mean help is not on the way... I can dispatch officers before you say a single word, and I don't have to be off the phone to do it. Don't make things up and don't guess. Letting us know that you don't know something is just as important as answering a question. Any misstatement could put you in a potentially life-threatening situation.

Other pointers

If you have a cell phone, program in your local police agency's seven digit emergency number. This should be in the phone book in the government listings. It will say something like "emergency 911 or 555-5555". If you can't find it (and you've actually looked) call your local agency's non-emergency number and ask for it. The reason for this is when you dial 9-1-1 from a cell phone, it is (currently) routed to a statewide dispatch center. This can add to additional delays. Of course, if you are on the freeway, or are out of your city, always make sure you dial 9-1-1, as this will be the fastest way to get assistance. Also, don't get mad at the operator because an officer is not there yet or you are having a bad day. All they can do is take your call. It is not their fault. Try not to get too worked up that an officer hasn't shown up yet. For many calls, such as house burglaries, and other calls with no suspects, remember that a few minutes of delay is going to make no difference in whether or not the crime is solved. Also remember that no matter how important this seems to you, there are many emergencies that require more immediate response. Remember that for every minute someone is not there taking your report, that is one more minute they are helping another person.

And finally

Don't dial 9-1-1 and hang up. It wastes time and resources, and can delay assistance to people having life threatening emergencies. If you misdialed, stay on the line and tell the operator. You're not in trouble. Everybody makes mistakes. Own up to yours.

Bottom Line... common sense, folks.

The emergency number is 999 for the land lines in Malaysia (same as UK and Ireland). The emergency number for mobile phones is 112 in Malaysia (and I understand in the rest of the GSM world).

In Norway the equivalent numbers are 110, 112 and 113 for fire, police and medical emergency services, respectively. 111 is not used because it is supposedly easy to dial by accident.

What happens after you dial 911

One of the most common complaints I hear when I go on emergency calls is, "What took you guys so long to get here?" This is often annoying and at times frustrating. So starting from your 911 call, let's trace the steps that happen before we show up at your door step:
  1. The 911 operator figures out what your emergency is - The first thing they have to know is if you are reporting a police, fire, or medical emergency. This determines who your call goes to next. Many major metropolitan areas employ EMD's, and some follow specific scripts to determine the level of response to send to you.
  2. They send the call to the appropriate response unit - After figuring out what you need - we'll say in this instance that your SO is having a heart attack, so that would be a fire engine and a paramedic ambulance - the appropriate units have to be notified. For our department, the 911 operator pushes a button, and a rather loud buzzer goes off, and a "tear-n-go" is printed containg the vital information necessary to get us to the call. For some places this might mean contacting the response units by radio or even by phone.
  3. The crew prepares to respond - For fires or traffic accidents, this means that the fire crews have to dress up in full gear (see a certain noders gathering to see what noders look like in fire gear). For medical calls, it means they go out to the response unit.
  4. The response unit figures out where to go - Using our department as an example, we receive three pieces of information that help us locate you as quickly as possible - the address, the closest cross-street, and a box-map number (which relates to a 8.5x11 representation of a 1 mile square area in which your address is located in). Optionally they request additional information from the dispatcher if they are having difficulty locating the address.
  5. They drive to your location - This is the hardest for people to understand. We actually have to get from our station (or wherever we were when we got the call) to your location. This means driving a 15-ton vehicle on roads using lights and sirens that generally cause people to act stupid. This also means we have to deal with things like traffic that won't yield the right-of-way, traffic jams, trains (they can't stop for us), etc. Add bonus points for things like rain (or hurricanes - we still have to respond during hurricanes if we think we can make it), snow, etc.
  6. They find you - This is always the fun part. Receiving a call at an apartment complex housing 1500 units and 4000 residents, find the right apartment under stress at night knowing that the person you are going to is not breathing and if you are off by even one minute they may die.

Too many times I watch people take for granted the fact that they have fire protection and a modern enough system that gets them the help they need as quickly as possible. Take for example a fire that recently occurred at a night club in Rhode Island. Firefighters were credited with saving over 100 lives because they were able to get to the scene quickly. If the club would have been one more minute farther away, or they would have had to negotiate traffic that wouldn't move, a lot more people could have died.

Another point to make is that even with all of the modern systems in place, luck has a place in it too. If you happen to have a heart attack 5 minutes after a full alarm goes on scene of a fire 3 miles from you it might take longer to get help to you. While we try to do everything in our power to insure there is coverage everywhere, there are times when there is nothing we can do.

Alot of this is very US-centric, and favors towards the view from a fire department response, but I would suspect it would hold true in a lot of other places (I'll let you know about Antartica as soon as I convince my work to let me off for 6 months so I can go down there). Information is the key, so be sure to know your emergency numbers, know your escape routes from your home, know the medical history of your loved ones, and not be afraid to call.


Update: I've gotten several questions about why a fire engine would go to a medical call. In most areas, firefighters are at minimum level First Responders, and in some larger cities they have Paramedics staffing the engines. Because there are more fire engines than ambulances, and because the fire engine can go available faster than the ambulance (they don't have to take the patient to the hospital, etc) they are in a better position to respond. In our department, about 80% of the calls we run (and our station responds to over 1500 calls a year) are medically related. We also go on Traffic Accidents, brush fires, illegal burns (i.e. trash fires), public assists (i.e. help Grandma off the floor when she falls out of bed at 2 a.m. or rescuing a kitten stuck in a wall), fire alarms, Hazardous Material calls, power lines down, "check out a funny odor", and others.

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