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.